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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.

Bristol City Council Passes Resolution Supporting Bill to End Tennessee Muni Barriers

At its March 3rd City Council meeting, elected leaders in Bristol voted 4 - 1 to adopt resolution 15 - 8 reported TriCities.com. The resolution officially supports state legislation removing state barriers that prevent municipal electric utilities from offering Internet service beyond their electric service footprint. State Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Kevin Brooks are sponsoring SB 1134 and its companion HB 1303 [PDF].

Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES) is one of the state's gigabit FTTH networks but like Chattanooga, is limited by state geographic restrictions. The recent FCC decision to overturn Tennessee and North Carolina state barriers has removed that legal provision but Bowling and Brooks want to make sure it happens and that Tennessee is able to embrace smarter policy without FCC intervention.

Bristol recognizes that its gigabit network provides a rare advantage in Tennessee. From the City Council agenda on the issue:

The service is an essential element of economic development, enhances educational opportunities, increases regional and global competitiveness, and provides a better quality of life. While we enjoy the benefits of being a “Gigabit Community”, there are many areas of Tennessee that lack access to high-speed broadband service. The ability to extend this service beyond the municipal electric service territory will provide an opportunity for customers to choose their provider and ensure a high quality of broadband service at a competitive price.

At the meeting, members of the Council noted that eliminating the restriction would allow BTES the ability to bring service to areas left behind by traditional providers. TriCites.com reported:

“This is David-versus-Goliath situation in that little, tiny BTES versus companies like Charter and AT&T have had the opportunity for years to develop places like Mountain City, Kingsport and Johnson City,” said Councilwoman Michelle Dolan. “Removing these restrictions would allow us to go into the cities that Charter and AT&T have not developed and for the city it’s a win-win situation.”

A PDF of the Resolution is available online and as a download below.

Missouri Anti-Muni Bill Advances Out of Committee

The Missouri Senate Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee voted to pass anti-local choice SB 266 on March 18th. This bill, sponsored by Senator Kurt Schaefer, will increase barriers for municipal networks and damage the possibility of highly-effective partnerships with the private sector. Call your Missouri State Senator and let them know you consider this bill anti-competitive, hostile to local interests, and that you will remember their vote at the next election.

The bill was discussed in the same committee earlier this month when a number of private tech firms, industry associations, and utilities groups wrote to members to express their concern with the bill. A dozen entities, including Google, NATOA, and APPA wrote that the provisions in the bill would prevent public private partnerships that improve connectivity at the local level. [See a PDF of the letter here.]

At the time, the committee chose not to vote. Rather than listen to experts, however, they postponed the decision and voted to pass the bill on Wednesday. The only amendment was a provision excluding Kansas City, Springfield, and St. Louis.

The exceptions will help Google and SpringNet but other communities will be shackled. The legislation states that its goal is to encourage innovation but the result is just the opposite by discouraging investment through intimidation.

Columbia is watching the course of this legislation with particular interest. As we reported last fall, the city is considering expanding use of its current fiber resources to spur economic development. This bill could derail their plans and keep Columbia's population limping along with CenturyLink's dismal DSL.  Mid-Missouri Public Radio reported on the bill in February:

“Smaller communities are concerned because they don’t have access to high-speed Internet,” [spokesperson for the Columbia Water and Light Department, Connie] Kacprowicz said. “Many of these communities in Missouri can’t even download a Netflix movie.”

Kacprowicz said the city of Columbia has extra fibers to sell to Internet service providers. According to Kacprowicz, the city was going to sell these fibers to the service providers. This would allow the providers to increase Internet access for small communities.

In light of the recent FCC ruling overturning certain restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, analysts are questioning its staying power. Nevertheless, Schaefer appears determined to push it through. From the Columbia Tribune:

Schaefer predicted that the commission’s decision would be challenged in court. “Today is the first day that they have attempted to do that, so I bet we are looking at five years of litigation around the country before that issue ever gets resolved.”

The National Institute on Money in State Politics reports that in 2012 Schaefer received $8,250 from CenturyLink, $6,250 from AT&T, and $3,000 from Comcast. All would benefit from the lack of competition created by the bill without any need to be "entrepeneurial." CenturyLink also contributed to Schaefer's campaign to run for Attorney General, reports the Tribune. He may one day have the opportunity to argue the bill he authored before a federal court.

According to Sen. Schaefer's legislative assistant, the bill will now go to the Senate chamber for a vote. If it passes, it will then go to the House. If the bill becomes law, it will take effect in late August.

If you live in Missouri, it is imperative that you call your Senator and tell them to vote NO when SB 266 comes before them. 

Tennessee Farm Bureau Association Backs State Legislation to End Barriers

The Tennessee Farm Bureau Association recently put its support behind state legislation from Senator Janice Bowling and Rep. Kevin Brooks reports the Times Free Press

The Bureau told the Times Free Press:

"Our members are hungry to have broadband," said Rhedonna Rose, executive vice president of the 600,000-member Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. "We represent a lot of Tennesseans in very rural areas of the state who are frustrated that they don't have high-speed Internet."

SB 1134 and its companion HB 1303 are brief and direct, allowing municipal power distributors the right to extend Internet access beyond current geographic boundaries established by state barriers. Bradley County, one of EPB's neighbors, would like to have EPB expand service to them but state laws, backed by large corporate incumbents not interested in serving Bradley, forbid expansion.

According to a Chattanoogan article, EPB and Bradley County are planning for the expansion which will serve about 1,000 people; about 800 of those people rely on dial-up for Internet access. From the Chattanoogan article:

“We have people who live within half a mile of our service territory … who have nothing but dial-up, and that doesn’t make any sense” [EPB CEO Harold] DePriest said. “In a lot of cases we can get to those areas fairly easily.”

The recent FCC decision changed the landscape in Tennessee and North Carolina for now but policy advocates, telecommunications attorneys, and community leaders are braced for legal challenges. In a Times Free Press article from last week, Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Haslam stated that his office would consider appealing the FCC decision. 

Bowling and Brooks are more interested in solving the broadband problem for their constituents than in asserting rights as state legislators. They know untangling the impending court cases could slow the current momentum to bring better connectivity to Tennessee. Rather than wait for a decision, Bowling and Brooks are taking action as policy makers.

Bowling, who serves Tullahoma and its gigabit community, is a long-time supporter of local choice. She told the Times Free Press:

"Tennessee can take care of business for Tennessee," Bowling said. "We don't need the federal regulation so much; we just need the freedom to expand high-speed broadband in small-town Tennessee."

Last fall we introduced readers to some of the people from the small towns in Bradley County who desperately need help from EPB. Joyce Coltrin, a local business owner, told us that her business must rely on expensive mobile broadband even though she is less than 1/2 mile from EPB's service area. Joyce is leading a group of persistent residents who support SB 1134 and HB 1303. Joyce spoke with the Times Free Press:

Joyce Coltrin, a member of the group “Citizens Striving to be Part of the 21st Century, said, “I am hearing many legislators today talking about states’ rights and saying that the Federal Communications Commission has no right to go around state laws concerning the internet. I suggest that the logical extension of that thought would be that a state has no right to go around its commitment to the betterment of its citizens by denying access to the internet.”

Missouri Senate Committee Hears Anti-Muni Bill; Private Companies and Groups Ask For No Vote

As the Senate version of Missouri's latest anti-muni bill, SB 266 [PDF], moved forward recently, a group of private sector companies and interested organizations appealed to state lawmakers [PDF] urging them to stop it in its tracks.

In January we reported on HB 437, introduced by House Member Rocky Miller. Its Senate companion, which establishes an identical slash and burn strategy to discourage municipal broadband investment, appears to be gathering interest.

The Senate Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee heard the bill on February 18th but chose not to vote on it, reports the Columbia Tribune. Members of the committee received a copy of the correspondence.

Readers will recall that Columbia is one of the many communities that have been actively investigating the possibility of municipal open access network investment. Last fall, Columbia received the results of a feasibility study that recommended the town make better use of its existing fiber assets for economic development purposes.

The letter, sent to Senator Eric Schmitt, Chairman of the Missouri Senate Committee on Jobs, Economic Development, and Local Government, stressed the importance of public private partnerships in the modern economy. SB 266 and HB 437, with their onerous barriers, would certainly discourage private investment in Missouri. From the letter:

In particular, these bills will hurt the private sector by derailing or unnecessarily complicating and delaying public-partnerships, by interfering with the ability of private companies to make timely sales of equipment and services to public broadband providers, by denying private companies timely access to advanced networks over which they can offer business and residential customers an endless array of modern products and services, and by impairing economic and educational opportunities that contribute to a skilled workforce from which businesses across the state will benefit.

As the letter suggests, restrictions such as those placed on local communities by these bills, do nothing but limit competition. The companies and organizations signing on to this letter understand that when local communities have the ability to make their own choices, consumers and businesses benefit:

Communities in Missouri and across America are eager to work with willing established carriers, enter into public-private partnerships with new entrants, develop their own networks, if necessary, or create other innovative means of acquiring affordable access to advanced communications capabilities. These are fundamentally local decisions that should be made by the communities themselves, through the processes that their duly elected and accountable local officials ordinarily use for making comparable decisions.

Signing the letter:

  • Alcatel-Lucent
  • American Public Power Association
  • Atlantic Engineering Group
  • Connecting for Good
  • CTC Technology & Energy
  • Fiber to the Home Council
  • Google
  • National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors
  • Netflix
  • OnTrac
  • Telecommunications Industry Association 
  • Utilities Telecom Council

Schaefer, who has collected generous contributions from CenturyLink and others in the telecom industry, tried to describe the bill as a tool to rein in local government. Nevertheless, his backers from CenturyLink sent their lobbyist to bemoan municipal networks a "unfair competition." As usual, the lobbyist simultaneously tried to convince lawmakers that CenturyLink was there purely in the public's interest, to protect the taxpayers from one of the "many dismal municipal failures" (head shake, eye roll).

Thankfully, the voice of reason had sent at least a few people to the hearing to debunk the typical misinformation. From the Tribune article:

In Missouri, [Ewell] Lawson, [of the Missouri Association of Municipal Utilities] said, 17 cities are offering Internet infrastructure or direct services. “There are no examples of failure in Missouri,” Lawson said. “A vote often politicizes the situation when it is not necessary.”

If you live in Missouri and hope to one day see more competition in the Internet industry, we encourage you to call your state elected officials and express your distaste for HB 437 and SB 266. Let them know that you consider these bills hostile toward meaningful competition and consider them economic development killers.

We also encourage you to arm yourself with our economic development fact sheet, that can help you provide some examples to help you prove your point. 

Remember, the political process is only yours if you own it.

Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Awards Announced

The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development recently announced the recipients of the Border to Border Broadband grants, funding established by the state legislature in 2014 to facilitate rural broadband projects. Seventeen public and private entities will share a total of $19.4 million in Greater Minnesota.

According the the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) press release, the projects will help bring better connectivity to 6,095 households, 83 community institutions, and 150 businesses in areas of the state considered unserved or underserved. This funding pays for up to 50 percent of the cost of each project. 

The need in rural areas of the state is intense; 40 projects submitted applications for a total of $44.2 million in requests. Among the recipients are some familiar projects.

RS Fiber Cooperative is awarded $1 million for its FTTH project in Renville County and and parts of Sibley County. We wrote a case study on the RS Fiber project in our report All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. According to the press release:

Total project costs are $3.32 million; the remaining $2.32 million (70 percent local match) will be provided by a line of credit that R-S Fiber Telcom has committed and partner equity. This project is part of a larger cooperative project estimated at $38.46 million that will upgrade broadband services to several thousand locations in the region. Hiawatha Broadband Communications will provide operational capacity. 

Federated Telephone, sister cooperative to Farmers Mutual Cooperative will also receive an award for a project in Big Stone County:

Federated Telephone Cooperative, Big Stone County. Awarded $3.92 million to construct broadband infrastructure that will make service available to 1,072 unserved premises. The full project cost is $7.92 million; the remaining $4 million (51 percent) in matching funds will be raised through tax abatement bonds, with the county loaning the bond proceeds to Federated. This project will cover the north half of Big Stone County, as well as the western tract that runs from south to north surrounding the city of Ortonville. The area will include the communities of Barry, Beardsley and Johnson along with the rural parts of western and northern Big Stone County.

Farmers Mutual Cooperative worked in partnership with Lac Qui Parle County to bring FTTH to the rural western community and turn it into one of the best connected regions of the state. The Farmers Mutual/Lac Qui Parle partnership is also detailed in the All Hands On Deck report.

Other cooperatives around the state that will use Border to Border awards to improve rural connectivity include Consolidated Telephone Cooperative, Alliance Communications Cooperative, and Interstate Telecommunications Cooperative.

There were a number of smaller, local telephone companies that are deploying or expanding in rural areas including Sjoberg Cable in Roseau, Otter Tail Telecom in Fergus Falls, and Dunnell Telephone Company in Dunnell. DEED also posted a map [PDF] that shows the locations of the funded projects.

CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom, who have poo-pooed public investment in publicly-owned infrastructure, labeling it as "unfair," also applied to receive public funds. They will receive approximately $2.5 million collectively. The private sector cleaned up, as is usual when it comes to collecting taxpayer dollars.

Last fall, we interviewed Minnesota's Senator Matt Schmit and Representative Erik Simonson, authors of the bill establishing the fund, and Danna Mackenzie, Director of the State Office of Broadband Development. Listen to their conversation with Chris in episode #119 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

These seventeen projects demonstrate a need that is just the tip of the iceberg. While $20 million is only a fraction of what it will take to bring fast, reliable, affordable connectivity to all Minnesotans, these projects will help lay the groundwork for future planning. We encourage the Minnesota Legislature to get serious about expanding Internet access across the state and in particular, focus on investing in coops and munis that will keep the money in the community.

Time Warner Cable Takes Maine Lawmakers to Exclusive Hotel for Lobbying Tryst

Time Warner Cable began lobbying Maine legislators at the dawn of the legislative session, reports the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. In January, the cable gargantuan hosted a "Winter Policy Conference" for state lawmakers at the exclusive Inn by the Sea resort. As Maine state leaders contemplate how they can boost connectivity, the incumbents are fueling up the anti-muni misinformation machine.

The Center did not have exact numbers of legislators who chose to accept the invitation to stay overnight, attend the opening dinner, or sit in on the "information sessions" which were all paid for by TWC. Reports range from "about a dozen" attendees at the evening dinner to "30 or 35" attending the information sessions the next day.

Naturally, the event raised red flags:

“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” said utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

The Center obtained copies of the information packet from the conference, which included a survey that had legislators questioning its objectivity:

“We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked,” said [DFL Rep. Sarah] Gideon.

Gideon was bothered by survey questions such as, “Should taxpayer-supported debt be used to build government-owned and operated broadband networks that sell broadband services to the public…where no broadband service currently exists…(or) broadband services are already available?”

“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon.

In keeping with typical big telecom misinformation campaigns, TWC brought authors of an often cited report written by two industry darlings, Davidson and Santorelli. The same report, full of errors, mischaracterizations, and untruths, has circulated among the anti-muni crowd. The report was filed with the FCC during the Comment period as they considered the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to expand in spite of state barriers. We considered it so egregiously inaccurate, we felt compelled to address some of its errors in our Reply Comments.

TWC made a gallant effort to lock in legislators to their way of thinking, but we suspect there were hold outs. Not every one attended the event:

“I’m a new legislator and I’m trying to be very diligent about making sure that I provide an appropriate distance to meet my comfort level,” said Higgins. He said his service on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee made him especially sensitive about appearing to take favors, because it’s “the committee that Time Warner comes before on any issues that relate to their core business.”

As we reported earlier this year, Higgins has drafted his own bill to provide funding to encourage better broadband in rural areas. Higgins's bill makes state funding available to municipalities and does not prevent them from investing in publicly owned infrastructure.

Boston Globe the Latest to Support Local Authority

Yet another major news outlet has endorsed the President's position in support of local telecommunications authority. On January 26th, the Boston Globe went on record to endorse the concept, urging the FCC and Congress to work together to ensure local communities have the right to make their own connecitvity decisions.

The Globe suggested that, rather than allowing the FCC to take the lead with the Wilson and Chattanooga petition decisions, federal lawmakers take action:

A better approach would be for Congress to settle the issue itself, by preventing states from interfering with cities and towns that want to start their own Internet services.

The Globe Editors note that rural areas are the hardest hit by large corporate provider indifference, that it is those same parties that drive the state barrier bills, and that, "This status quo is bad for customers everywhere."

Globe Editors get behind a bill recently introduced by Cory Booker, Claire McCaskill, and Ed Markey that wipes out state barriers in the 19 states where they exist and prevents state lawmakers from enacting new ones. The Globe acknowledges that the support is lopsided today...:

But this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it isn’t one on the local level. Red states like Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah all have successful municipal Internet programs. Politicians tempted by campaign contributions from the telecommunications lobby, or skeptical of any proposal backed by President Obama, should remember that consumer protection is an issue that voters of all stripes support.