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Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Kansas Community Benefits from Community Owned Networks

Even though the Kansas cable lobby have temporarily retracted their competition-killing telecom bill, we still want to highlight the benefits of preserving full home rule, local authority by focusing on a number of communities, including Chanute, Ottawa, and Erie.

Chanute

We have reported on Chanute's municipal network for years. The community leveraged its electric utility assets and incrementally built an extensive publicly owned gigabit fiber network. Over several decades, the community expanded its network to serve schools, libraries, local government, and businesses. Chanute took advantage of every opportunity and created a valuable asset with no borrowing or bonding.

Several business, including Spirit AeroSystems, chose to locate in Chanute because of its incredible fiber network. Spirit brought approximately 150 new jobs. The network also retained jobs when incumbents refused to provide needed upgrades to local businesses. Rather than leave town, the businesses connected to the City's network and increased their productivity. 

Former City Manager J.D. Lester referred to municipal broadband as “the great equalizer for Rural America,” saying: “You don’t have to live in Kansas City to work there.” (See our case study Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to A Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage [PDF])

Kids in Chanute have access to connectivity other schools can only dream about. The local community college has expanded its distance learning program with higher capacity broadband. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are all over town; money otherwise sent to distant providers stays in the community. Chanute has invested in a WiMAX wireless system that serves public safety all over the region, not only in town. Their other utilities use the network for automatic metering and SCADA applications, saving energy and allowing customers the chance to reduce utility bills.

Chanute Logo

In addition to savings public dollars by reducing the cost of municipal connectivity, the broadband utility generates $600,000 and contributes 5 percent of that to the general fund.

Community leaders recently began planning for a FTTH expansion to bring fiber Internet to every home in town. If SB 304 finds its way into the books, those plans will be derailed and residents will be left with slow cable and DSL access.

Erie

Erie, southeast of Chanute, also utilizes Chanute's extensive fiber network for affordable school connectivity. When it was time to upgrade, Erie approached incumbent Cox. Cox's proposal for 100 Mbps to the high school alone was $5,000 per month. With its microwave network, Chanute is able to provide Internet service to the Erie community where already fiber connects the school facilities. Chanute serves Erie's high school, grade school, administration offices, and the bus barn where students learn auto mechanics. Like Chanute schools, Erie is guaranteed 100 Mbps but able to burst up to 300 Mbps when capacity allows. Erie pays only $5,100 per month and 80% of its connectivity fee is reimbursed by the federal E-rate program.

Ottawa

Inspired by Chanute's success, nearby Ottawa launched its fiber network in 2013. Ottawa joined forces with its school district and county government. Ottawa used an existing patchwork school district and county fiber, linking them together as a community network backbone. Each entity retained ownership of their resources but shared fiber strands with the City.

Ottawa businesses were dissatified with services from incumbents who were not interested in upgrading. Choices were expensive and slow T1s or an uber expensive DS3. Multiple appeals to incumbent AT&T yielded no results.

Schools, the area community college, and a farmers' cooperative connect to the network for better capacity and lower prices than AT&T will offer. The school district has cut its connectivity fees in half from $6,000 per month to $3,000 per month, by switching to Ottawa as a service provider. They now receive double the speed they used to purchase because the community network takes a much different approach than AT&T. From our April 2013 article on Ottawa:

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

UTOPIA Again Targeted by Bill in State Legislature

Kansas is not the only place where the cable and telecom lobbies are attacking publicly owned networks. Jesse Harris from FreeUtopia.org reports that State Rep. Curt Webb has introduced HB60, aimed at UTOPIA. From the story:

As the bill is currently written, UTOPIA wouldn’t just be prevented from building to people willing to pay for it. They could also be required to shut down any existing services and be prohibited from maintaining their backbone that links cities together. It would effectively be a death sentence on any network that isn’t entirely within member cities AND can connect to an exchange point to reach ISPs and the rest of the Internet.

FreeUtopia also reports that the bill does not affect cable, DSL, wireless, or any other technology. Harris writes:

Naturally, I had to follow the money and it explains a lot. Rep. Webb has taken contributions from CenturyLink and the Utah Rural Telecom Association. 

As an observation, I take issue with the state's fiscal note on HB60. It reports that enactment of the bill "likely will not result in direct, measurable costs for local governments." The fiscal note also concludes that "enactment of this bill likely will not result in direct, measurable expenditures by Utah residents or businesses."  

If this bill ends UTOPIA in certain areas, affected government, residential, and business customers will lose the competitive rates they now enjoy - direct and measurable! See Pete Ashdown's comment on Jesse's story - he runs XMission, a beloved local ISP that uses UTOPIA to connect to some subscribers.

This bill is another example of how cable and telephone company lobbyists are not just trying to shut down municipal networks, but any possible public private partnerships. This is emphatically not about tax dollars, as Jesse rightly notes:

These extensions help lessen the burden on taxpayers as a whole by shifting more of the costs onto subscribers, but it doesn’t cost any city a red cent.

A Roadmap for the FCC To Ensure Local Authority to Build Networks - Community Broadband Podcast #84

When the DC Circuit Court handed down a decision ruling against the FCC's Open Internet (network neutrality) rules, it also clarified that the FCC has the power to overrule state laws that limit local authority to build community networks. Harold Feld, Senior Vice President for Public Knowledge, joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #84 to explain the decision.

Harold exlains what Section 706 authority is and how all the DC Circuit judges on the case felt that the FCC, at a minimum, has the authority to strike down laws that delay or prohibit the expansion of broadband infrastrcturue.

We then discuss how the FCC can go about striking down such laws to reestablish local authority - a community in a state like North Carolina could file a petition with the FCC for action or the FCC could decide to take action itself. Either way, it will have to build a record that laws revoking local authority to build networks are harmful to expanding this essential infrastructure.

Finally, some of this power filters down to state public utility commissions, but just how much is unclear at present.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Early Reactions to Anti-Competition Broadband Bill in Kansas

Following the introduction of SB 304 to limit investment in Internet networks in Kansas, which we covered on Tuesday, we saw some early reactions from those who fear the bill will effectively stop new investment in networks, much to the benefit of the big cable and telephone companies already providing service.

We quickly saw a new Facebook page - Kansans for Broadband Access - and a related website by the same name.

In Chanute, a rural community with an impressive municipal network serving businesses and anchor institutions, the local paper covered overwhelming disapproval.

The city opposes the bill because it’s legislation that allows lawmakers in Topeka to define what local communities can or cannot do.

“It’s about home rule, local choice,” Chanute Utilities Director Larry Gates said. “It’s not about what happens in Topeka.”

And a local business weighed in, noting that the City service is essential because the private providers have refused to upgrade and offer modern services:

Phil Jarred of Jarred Gilmore & Phillips PA said the two private companies providing internet services, CableOne and AT&T cannot meet the needs his business requires.

“Both services are not fast enough,” Jarred said. “It costs us too much not to have the fiber optics.”

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm noted that it curiously bans both municipal networks and the types of partnerships that Google and Kansas City formed, finishing with "it looks like incumbent providers are fighting back with politics."

This is nothing new of course - companies have sought for years to protect their businesses with laws limiting the competition rather than investing or being innovative. But when it comes to an essential infrastructure, we should be particularly careful.

Kansas Legislature Introduces Bill to Limit Internet Investment

Get updates to this story here.

With Senate Bill No. 304 [pdf], the Kansas Legislature will consider a bill to revoke local authority to build networks. If passed, this bill would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks we have seen in any state.

The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services.

The bill states that the goal is to

encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates; and ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Yet the bill does nothing but discourage investment, with no explanation of how prohibiting some approaches will lead to more investment or better services. It does not enable any new business models, rather it outlaws one possible source of competition for existing providers.

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC's minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level - and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

This is not the absolute most restrictive bill we have seen revoking local authority to build networks, but it is second. It does allow communities to build networks for public purposes, including schools, which is the differentiator in this case.

cover-chanute-gig-small-rotate.png

These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition - even in the most rural areas of the country.

This is not a matter of taxes. As we note in a recent fact sheet, most community networks have not used taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the cable and telephone companies have a history of benefits from the public sector, from ongoing subsidies to having built their networks originally as monopolies protected from competition.

For those new to this issue, I highly recommend our fact sheets on community networks, videos, and our interactive map of community networks.

We have covered many stories in Kansas over the years, including the network in Chanute that has helped many local businesses (see our case study) and a more recent investment by the city of Ottawa.

We will provide ongoing coverage as this bill moves forward.

Circuit Court to FCC: You Can Restore Local Authority to Build Community Networks

As we noted yesterday, the DC Circuit of Appeals has decided that the FCC does not have authority to implement its Open Internet (network neutrality) rules as proposed several years ago.

But the court nonetheless found that the FCC does have some authority to regulate in the public interest, particularly when it comes to something we have long highlighted: state barriers to community owned networks. For example, see North Carolina and recent efforts in Georgia.

States have been lobbied heavily by powerful cable and telephone companies to create barriers that discourage community owned networks. Nineteen states have such barriers (see our map with the states shown in red), largely because communities have nowhere near the lobbying power of massive cable and telephone companies, not because the arguments against municipal networks are compelling.

For those who remember a certain Supreme Court decision called Nixon v Missouri, the Court has once weighed in the matter of state barriers to community networks. In the '96 Telecom Act, Section 253 declares "No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service."

However, the Supreme Court decided in 2004 that Congress was insufficiently clear in its intent to preempt state authority - that "any" did not mean "any" but rather meant something else. In making this decision, it ignored a legislative history with plenty of evidence (see Trent Lott for instance) that suggested Congress meant "any" to mean "any."

ANYway, we lost that one. States were found to have the right to limit the authority of communities to build their own networks. But we have long felt that a different grant of authority gave the FCC the power to overrule state limits of local authority to build networks, Section 706.

Preemption Map

And this is where yesterday's decision comes in. Circuit Judge Silberman concurred in part and dissented in part - but more importantly for us, he explained Section 706. Read along with your own copy from here [pdf].

The statute directs the Commission to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . . by utilizing . . . price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

As I said, we have long felt the FCC had the power to remove state barriers that limit local authority to build fiber networks under its section 706 authority but we did not know whether the courts would read it in the same way. In describing the difference between its authority to promote competition vs. its power to remove barriers to infrastructure investment, he notes:

An example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.

The footnotes cites this Wired article for further information. It's "kind of a big deal."

We now have a clear roadmap: Section 706 gives the FCC the authority to remove barriers to infrastructure investment and to promote competition. Restoring local authority to build networks achieves both. The Nixon v. Missouri decision is irrelevant, based on a different section of law. And we have plenty of evidence that when allowed to build their own networks, communities can do a wonderful job... that is what we have been documenting for years.

LightTUBe Financially Secure in Tennessee

Tullahoma Utilities Board's triple-play FTTH LightTUBe, began serving Tullahoma in 2009. The fiber network utility is paying off its city bond debt on schedule reports the Tullahoma News.

The network's income during the first four months of fiscal year 2014 is a positive $58,939. General Manager Brian Skelton spoke with Chris Mitchell in July 2013 and expressed confidence that that network will continue to operate in the black. The News reported on our podcast interview with Skelton and provided some recent updates:

With an estimated potential customer base of 9,000 in the TUB service area, LightTUBe services 3,201 fiber customers. That number is slightly ahead of goal (3,186) and represents nearly 36 percent market penetration against primary competitor Charter Communications.

Tullahoma deployed its network to encourage economic development. In 2011, we reported on J2 Software Solutions. The company located its headquarters in Tullahoma because LightTUBe offered fast, reliable, affordable service. 

According to the News article, expenditures on Internet service remain consistent while subscriptions grow. The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) only recently approved a $7 rate increase for video service due to an increase in the cost of television content. When content rates rose in the past, TUB chose to absorb the increase but the cost of content continues to increase for all providers. Since 2009, TUB increased Internet service speeds five times without increasing prices. From the article:

”LightTUBe is in a very comfortable position from a financial perspective. Our biggest concern at this point is the unreasonable price increases that we (and others in the video business) are seeing from many of our channel providers,” said Skelton.

That comfortable financial position appears to rest largely on the shoulders of LightTUBe’s Internet service.

While video and telephone services together generate enough income to offset the system’s net maintenance and depreciation costs, Internet services generate enough income to offset its additional customer service, sales, administration and debt costs.

Unlike the private providers it competes against, Tullahoma is limited in where it can offer service. State law prevents it from serving customers outside its electrical territory - something AT&T and Comcast lobbyists have preserved year after year by killing bills that would remove this damaging law. Across Tennessee, local businesses, residents, and anchor institutions are stuck with slower, less reliable connections despite desiring expansion from the nearby utility but they are denied.

Because Tennessee law prohibits municipal utilities from providing their fiber services outside of their electric service territory, LightTUBe cannot offer its 1G Internet to – for example – the Coffee County Joint Industrial Park, which is serviced by Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative (DREMC). The joint park, located five miles northeast of Tullahoma and outside of TUB’s service area, has cable-based Internet service.