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While 6th Circuit Reviews Appeal, Organized Attack Begins In House

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the FCC's decision to roll back Tennessee and North Carolina anti-muni laws, elected officials opposed to local authority are mounting an assault to head off possible enabling legislation. Their first target is the House of Representatives.

Poison Pens

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange all sent letters to the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-MI). Their letters express derision at the thought of allowing local communities the ability to make decisions for themselves when it comes to ensuring local businesses and residents have the Internet access they need.

Communities with publicly owned networks such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have prospered compared to those relying only on the large incumbent cable and telephone companies like Comcast and AT&T. Data suggest access to publicly owned networks contribute to local prosperity. Nevertheless, these elected officials have chosen to support big ISPs rather than their own constituents.

Elected Officials Protecting Campaign Interests

When the FCC released its Opinion and Order scaling back state restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, legislators backed by ISP powerhouses took up arms. They introduced bills, wrote editorials, and delivered speeches that put profits of AT&T and Comcast before the rights of Tennesseans and North Carolinians to have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Tennessee Governor Haslam and North Carolina AG Cooper each filed an appeal, to reverse the FCC's decision and keep the laws limiting competition in place. Those appeals have been consolidated and are being considered together in the Sixth Circuit.

According to Stop the Cap!, advocates for better local connectivity have observed the way telecomunications legislation is passed in Tennessee:

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Haslam is not the only state leader to speak out who has a vested interest in keeping restrictions in place.

As Stop the Cap! notes, all four of these prominent politicians received considerable campaign contributions from powerhouse ISPs with an interest in limiting competition.

For a quick rundown, we collected some links:

Early Attack

The latest assault is an effort to head off federal action to guarantee local Internet choice. In addition to the FCC Order in February, Senator Cory Booker introduced such a bill last January with the support of Senators McCaskill and Markey. The issue has gained more attention over the past year as word spread of the benefits experienced in Chattanooga, Wilson, and other cities with publicly owned networks.

Big incumbent providers write checks to state lawmakers with one hand as they write legislation with the other. This is just one of the many problems with massive monopolies cornering the market in essential services: they have all the access they need to stifle competition. As long as this is the preferred campaign finance method, voters are the only ones who can punish elected officials who put big corporate interests ahead of local needs.

Tiny Mount Washington Pursues Muni in Massachusetts

Mount Washington's 167 residents will not let their small size defeat their big plans for a municipal fiber network. The community is seeking permission from the state legislature to finance, own, and operate a municipal Internet network. The bill granting Mount Washington the authority to do so, S1978, recently passed in the Senate and then moved to the House to await review.

"The Town Among The Clouds" sought special legislation to avoid being bound by the state's requirement that communities establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). The MLP is a separate department responsibile for municipal electricity and broadband service. Town leaders believe an MLP would be an administrative burden for such a small community; the State Senate agrees.

Many other communities in western Massachusetts have signed up to work with the WiredWest broadband cooperative to improve local connectivity. Mount Washington residents feel they can complete the project sooner on their own. 

Mount Washington, sitting in the Taconic Mountains, is the westernmost and southwesternmost town in Massachusetts and the smallest town in Berkshire County. Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett State Reservation cover much of the town creating a forested, sparsely populated area.

According to the Berkshire Eagle:

[Selectman Chair Brian] Tobin said Internet access in Mount Washington is nearly non-existent. Some residents have satellite dishes and other have long-distance Wi-Fi service, "but to my knowledge, no one has dial-up service."

All of these options, he said, are slow and at times unreliable.

Residents consider the project necessary infrastructure:

Tobin said the town opted to push forward on funding and building its own infrastructure because the plan will allow the community to pay for it the same way as any other town project, such as roads and buildings.

"It's something we have to do as a town," he said. "And we have the support for it."

Chattanooga Video Explains Potential Gigabit Expansion Process

Following up on our post last week noting the new video from Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, another video recently posted explains what needs to change in Tennessee law for Chattanooga to expand Internet access beyond the current footprint. EPB Chief Operating Officer David Wade also explains the process the municipal electric distributor will use to connect nearby communities.


Alabama Republican Speaks Out in Favor of Local Authority

As we have learned, communities with municipal networks have tended to be politically conservative. Nevertheless, conservative state level politicians have often supported measures to revoke local authority to encourage local Internet choice. Recently, Alabama State Senator Tom Whatley, a Republican from Auburn, expressed his support for local authority in

Whatley introduced SB 438, which would remove service area restrictions on municipal providers and remove the currently restriction preventing other municipalities from providing voice, video, or Internet access services. As he notes in his opinion piece, the bill did not move beyond the Transportation and Energy Committee, but he also asserts that he will be back next year to press for the measure. 

Auburn is near Opelika where the community has deployed a FTTH network to serve residents and spur economic development. If the restrictions are eliminated, Opelika could expand to Auburn and even other rural areas nearby.

Whatley makes comparisons to the strides America made with the national interstate system. He also acknowledges the way Chattanooga's network has transformed what was once described as the "dirtiest city in America." Whatley takes the same approach we encounter from many communities where, after failed attempts to entice private providers to serve their citizenry, eventually decided to take on the task themselves.

He writes:

As a Republican, I believe the private sector is usually the best and most efficient method for providing a service. But when private companies, for whatever reason, make a decision not to serve an area, we should not handcuff the people of that region if they decide to use a public entity to receive that service (in this case, broadband Internet) in order to compete today for the jobs of tomorrow.

LD 1185 Advances in Maine With Overwhelming Support

On June 5th, the Main House of Representatives voted 143 - 0 in favor of LD 1185, the Maine bill to provide state planning and implementation grants for local municipal networks. Representative Norm Higgins, the sponsor of the bill, contacted us to let us know about the incredible support for the bill.

LD 1185 proposes to provide $6 million this year for local communities seeking to establish networks that want to take advantage of the state's middle-mile network, the Three Ring Binder. The House amended the bill to include general goals for the fund and its purpose in bringing better connectivity to Maine. 

The amendment also creates specifications between planning and implementation grants and establishes caps on awards. Planning grants cannot exceed $25,000 and implementation grants cannot exceed $200,000. Implementation grants require a 25 percent match from the requesting municipality; planning grants require a one-to-one match. The amendment is available online.

Now that the House has put their stamp of approval on the bill, it is up to the Maine Senate to  approve the measure and send it on to the Governor. According to Higgins, it appears to have strong bipartisan support; funding is the only area of uncertainty. He anticipates it will be before the Appropriations Committee within the next two weeks.

ALEC in Savannah: Local News Video Exposes the Corrupt Process of Lawmaking

We have reported on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the past and stories about ALEC sponsored legislative retreats pop up in the news on a regulary basis. Most recently, NBC Channel 11 from Atlanta reported on the shadowy world of big corporate influence in Georgia. 

None of this will be new to anyone familiar with ALEC's shadowy way of doing business, but having it on video makes it more compelling.

Brendan Keefe visited Savannah and tried to observe one of these meetings between ALEC corporate members and state legislators. Even though Keefe and his crew had an official press pass, they were blocked from entering the meeting.

Keefe spoke with a Georgia State Senator Nan Orrock, who once belonged to ALEC. She told him about the meetings, paid for with ALEC funds or "legislator scholarships," and pointed out the true nature of the closed door gatherings:

It's really a corporate bill mill…the truth be told, they write the bills.

Even though Keefe was not able to attend one of the meetings, he did encounter a legislator and several lobbyists in the bar the night before. They didn't mind describing what they were doing in Savannah and who paid the bill. Watch the brief expose below.

We also include a 2013 Real News video with Branden Fischer from the Center for Media and Democracy. He goes more indepth on ALEC's modus operandi and its membership.

See video
See video

Graphic: LD 1185 Proposes Planning Grants for Munis in Maine

In late April, LD 1185 and several other broadband bills came before the Maine House Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. We have seen a flurry of activity in Maine this year as local communities deploy networks, develop plans, or begin feasibility studies. Likewise, the state legislature has been active as House and Senate members try to defibrillate the barely beating heart of the state listed as 49th for broadband availability.

The national providers in Maine - Time Warner Cable and FairPoint have little interest or capacity to invest in high quality services in Maine. Time Warner Cable is more focused on major metros and being acquired. FairPoint is laying off workers and also, positioning itself to be acquired. Fortunately, these big companies aren't the only option for improving Internet connectivity in Maine.

LD 1185, presented by Representative Norm Higgins, seeks to establish $6 million this year in funds for local communities that wish to deploy municipal networks. Maine already has the middle mile Three Ring Binder in place; the focus of this proposal is to help communities get the infrastructure they need to connect to it. In an effort to get the word out about the bill and grow support, Higgins and his team created this graphic explaining the proposal (a 2-page printable edition of the graphic is available for download from the link below):

LD 1185 Graphic

LD 1185 Graphic

According to a recent Legislative Bulletin from the Maine Municipal Association, LD 1185 and LD 1063, which redirects ConnectME towards issuing planning grants, appear to have the most traction of all the Maine bills. Testifying in support of both bills were the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the ConnectME Authority, the University of Maine, Great Works Internet, Maine Fiber Company, the AARP, and the Coastal and Island Institutes. The Mayors' Coalition, and community officials from Rockport, Isleboro, South Portland, and Orono also testified in favor of the bills.

From the Office of the Public Advocate's Testimony on LD 1185:

The bill proposes to provide municipalities with matching grants to fund broadband planning efforts, and provide technical support to those communities. Providing this kind of assistance to communities is important to ensuring that those communities make informed decisions regarding use of public funds for broadband investment. The bill offers several novel and useful concepts not seen in other legislation that are particularly promising.

As can be expected, Verizon, Fairpoint, Time Warner Cable, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine testified in opposition.

ECFiber Seeks New Business Model Designation

ECFiber hopes to transform its business model in order to attract investors, reported Valley News in February. The organization is now an "inter-local contract," an entity somewhat unique to Vermont, but seeks to change to a "telecommunications union district." Similar to a municipal utility district, the telecommunications union district is created by two or more municipalities. The new business model would not change ECFiber's governance or require financial support from local towns but officials believe it would attract more outside investors.

Last year, ECFiber announced it would expand in 2015, seeking large scale funding to help speed up deployment. Since 2008, the organization has raised over $6 million for deployment from individual investors and now serves more than 1,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, this method financing slows expansion. The results are bad for ECFiber and bad for local consumers:

“The worst thing (about ECFiber’s delay) is a lot of the people who wanted to have it weren’t able to get it right away,” said [ECFiber Treasurer John] Roy.

At this point, FairPoint, Northern New England’s provider of land-line service, is able to reach more rural areas than ECFiber with its high-speed Internet service. But, FairPoint’s speeds of up to 30 megabits per second are slower than the 400 megabits per second ECFiber’s cables can provide, said Roy.

“If we’re going to get this job done before the end of this decade, we need to step up the rate,” said [Irv] Thomae [ECFiber's Governing Board Chariman].

It would take another 17 - 18 years to deploy 1,600 miles of fiber, the ECFiber goal. If the organization can raised $40 million from larger investors, that period can be reduced to 3 - 5 years, estimated Roy.

In order to achieve the business model change, ECFiber seeks approval from the State Legislature, which will create a union district via H 353 [PDF]. Local communities served by ECFiber must also approve the measure by ballot at their Town Meetings. Thetford approved the measure in February and ECFiber officials expected other communities to follow with no surprises.

Local communities may have no problem taking care of business, but the same cannot be said for state leaders. H 353 and two others are stalled in the State Legislature's Commerce and Economic Development Committee, reports VTDigger. All three bills are designed to help advance rural broadband development but have been put on the back burner while the committee deals with other matters.

Rep. Jim Masland from Theford introduced H 353. He told Valley News that he was optimistic about passage and that "it shouldn't be controversial." Hopefully, the committee can tend to the bill quickly this session so ECFiber can continue to do its good work. Delay only benefits Fairpoint and harms consumers who want better services from a local, accountable, publicly minded network provider.

Minnesota House Proposal to Kill Broadband is the Wrong Move for Economic Development

Representative Pat Garofalo’s (R-53B) proposal to cut funding for broadband grants is the wrong move for Minnesota. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) is absolutely opposed to any suggestion Minnesota should have two-tiered Internet access - a fast standard in urban areas and slower, less reliable access in Greater Minnesota.

Wireless technology and satellite Internet are not sufficient for homes and businesses in the modern economy. They certainly won’t lead to the kind of job creation or retention that Greater Minnesota needs. Modern jobs require modern connections.

ILSR has long fought the notion, often advanced by the cable monopoly lobbyists in Saint Paul, that wireless is good enough for people that don't live in the metro. Nearly 100 years ago, the United States wisely pursued policies to electrify farms and the boosts to the economy were staggering. Given the significant budget surplus, now is the not the time for the Legislature to turn its back on Greater Minnesota.

“It’s outrageous to us that a lawmaker who is supposedly in favor of needed job creation for our communities would turn around and slash the very thing that could support it,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “Rural Minnesotans should not be constantly moved to the back of the line for 21st century connectivity. We can’t wait any longer for the kinds of investments that will carry our schools and businesses across the digital divide.”

In Windom, Minnesota, for instance, the community has seen strong job growth, including at the Toro Manufacturing plant, because it could get better Internet access from the small city's utility than it could get at Twin City locations. Those jobs would not exist if local employers relied only on wireless or satellite technologies.

More information:

ILSR published All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, a detailed report on how local communities across the state can improve Internet access for government, businesses, and residents. One of our policy recommendations from studying these 12 communities in depth was expanded, rather than reduced, state support for these efforts.

Tennessee Bill to Strike Anti-Muni Laws Tabled Until Next Session

Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Kevin Brooks have decided to table their legislative efforts to remove state restrictions in Tennessee. While backing for SB 1134 and HB 1303 was growing beyond the walls of the state Capitol, the sponsors decided to shore up stronger legislative support rather than risk derailing the bill entirely. 

Brooks told the Tennessean:

"We have had a lot of good progress, and we don't want to throw it all away," Brooks said. The votes were not there in the Senate, and he and co-sponsor state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, have asked to roll the bill to the beginning of the 2016 calendar, giving them more time to garner support from their colleagues.

"We have pressed the pause button to keep it alive," Brooks said.

Communities around the state, including Bristol, went on record in support of the bill. The Tennessee Farm Bureau, representing 600,000 members, also backed the legislation

Energized by the recent FCC decision nullifying state laws restricting Chattanooga from expanding, Bowling, Brooks, and other local leaders thought the time was right to once again try to eliminate state barriers. The FCC decision has already been formerly challenged by Tennessee's Attorney General with the support of the Governor. Rather than depend on federal intervention to establish an environment that will encourage connectivity, SB 1134 and/or its companion HB 1303 would have solved the problem on the home front.

Economic development has been stifled by state barriers preventing municipal network expansions in the state but many constituents are plagued by lack of personal access. Incumbents who have spent millions lobbying to keep these restrictions in place during past legislative sessions, do not serve a number of rural areas. Those areas could benefit from municipal network expansions. From a March 6th Tennessean article:

"My district said we need help. We have some folks with little service, some folks with no service," Brooks said. "This is not about government intrusion; this is a bill about service exclusion."

Even though the legislation will not change state law this session, the FCC decision still stands for now. It may take years for the issue to be finally determined but hopefully the momentum will continue and more Tennessee voters will let their elected officials know they want to strike anti-muni laws from state books.

From an EPB Press Release:

“Thanks to a growing number of Tennesseans, who are contacting their representatives to communicate their critical need for broadband services, we made more progress this legislative session than ever before,” Senator Bowling said. “Next year, I hope the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans with little or no broadband service will override the vested interests of the legacy carriers who refuse to serve them while lobbying to prevent community-based providers from meeting the needs of the people in our state.” 

WDEF News 12 covered the story:

We simply find it stunning that a majority of legislators in Nashville believe that their state is better off with slower Internet access. That is exactly what this is about - AT&T and Comcast have purchased another year of not having to worry about competition from the Tennessee General Assembly.