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Bill to Boost Broadband in Minnesota Struggles in Legislature

In a revealing video about the Internet access problem in rural Minnesota, Annandale City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp below describes her town's struggle with connectivity. The video is the latest in a series on the Minnesota Senate DFL YouTube page intended to shed light on the critical situation in the state.

Hinnenkamp describes broadband in the areas outside of Annadale as "horrific." She goes on to discuss how the community's poor connectivity negatively impacts its economic health. She shares a story about entrepreneurs from an artisan spice business once located in Annandale. The company started with online sales but the owners anticipated opening a storefront in the downtown area of the lake community. After contending with eight outages in three weeks, the new business pulled up stakes and moved to Buffalo. 

Buffalo, located only 15 minutes away from Annandale, offers fast, reliable, affordable fiber service to local businesses.

In a February Minnesta Public Radio News article, Hinnenkamp told Dave Peters:

“Broadband is probably the single most important issue in our community right now,” she said. “Our big issue is not that we don’t have service but that we have one provider that has shown little interest in improving it. Broadband is our future."

In a Star Tribune article, Pete Kormanik, the owner of a local McDonald's, expressed his concern as a business owner:

Downloading data for a digital menu board — a task that would have taken 30 minutes at his other restaurants — dragged on for more than four hours.

After delays in processing credit cards, watching training videos and transmitting orders, Kormanik switched to an AT & T antenna. But a cloudy day can slow that service.

“If you can’t stay current with [connectivity], you’re just going to fall behind,” Kormanik said. “And businesses won’t go into those locations.”

Watch the brief interview with Hinnenkamp below or visit the series website to see more interviews. In the words of Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership: 

"It's time to stop talkin' and do something."

Broadband has been discussed for the past several years in Minnesota. Several task forces and reports have all concluded that lack of broadband in Minnesota, especially in the rural areas, will have detrimental effects on the future. Senator Matt Schmit, a DFLer from Red Wing, introduced SF 2056 [PDF] this session to inspire momentum for local broadband projects. Representative Erik Simonson, DFL Duluth, has been pushing the measure in the House.

The bill establishes a grant and loan program focused on local middle- and last-mile projects in areas like Annandale. Dubbed the Border to Border Infrastructure Program, it would bring $100,000,000 from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. The bill has bipartisan support but has not been prioritized by either the Governor or Senate leadership within the Legislature. Meanwhile, Comcast and other incumbent lobbyists have been trying to minimize the fund and any impact it could have.

While it may not become a reality this legislative session, the bill has brought serious reflection on the critical need for Minnesota's rural areas. One of the attractive features of the bill is that funds can be used to supplement funding for local projects. This approach allows local communities to determine the best path for their own needs.

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Home Security Firm ADT Opposes Kentucky Bill to Eliminate Landlines

In February, we reported on another attempt by AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell, to eliminate plain old telephone service (POTS) in Kentucky. According to Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group, AT&T's SB 99 is quickly moving ahead and may even be up for a full House vote at any time.

Kentucky has fought to save its landlines for three years in a row. Many of us only think of landlines as a way to speak with loved ones, but for the isolated, elderly, and those that face daily health hazards, a landline is also a lifeline.

We recently learned that home security firm ADT submitted a letter opposing the passage of SB 99 because many business and residential customers rely ADT's technology designed for traditional landlines. Even thought the letter is dated March 4th, it only recently came to light. The letter states:

Many of our customers, like the one who alerted ADT to this bill, rely on POTS to carry alarm signals to and from monitoring companies like ADT.  Some also use POTS for their Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) and medical alert services.  ADT accepts that the transition from POTS is a natural progression towards new technology, and is actively working to develop best processes and an acceptable timeline where POTS is discontinued; however, the safety of everyday Kentuckians could be jeopardized if this is not done in a pragmatic, thoughtful way.

Kentuckians can weigh in on this bill by calling the toll free message line at 800-372-7181 and tell House leadership and their legislator to oppose SB 99.

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access

A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town.

We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house.

Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called Fast Roads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it.

Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins.

Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.

People often hear, for example, that 95 percent of the state has access to broadband, she said. But that’s only by including all New Hampshire Internet speeds, some of which fall below the speed considered fast enough to be broadband, which is 4 megabits per second (Mbps). Most of the state, more than half, doesn’t have access to speeds that meet the 4 Mbps threshold, she [Carole Monroe, Executive Director of Fast Roads] said.

...

So far, there are four providers on the network, which passes through 19 towns, including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Keene, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey. Now that construction is complete, FastRoads is working to add more providers to the list, as well as looking for ways to expand its network to more residential areas.

FastRoads also included two areas of “last mile” construction, enabling 1,300 residents and businesses in specific areas of Rindge and Enfield to connect directly to the FastRoads fiber, though a service provider has to bring the connection from the cable box on the street into the home.
So far, about 180 residents or businesses are using the network, Monroe said.

For Rindge resident Tim Wessels, the FastRoads network has made a “world of difference.”
Before it, he paid $130 a month for a satellite and two DSL circuits. Combining all three, he had a download speed of just over 3 megabits per second.

Now, Wessels pays $70 to one Internet service provider for 20 Mbps of download and upload speed.

Fast Roads was assisted with an award from the federal broadband stimulus programs.

Utah Senate Bill Attacking UTOPIA on the Fast Track: SB190

UPDATE: According to Pete Ashdown, the amendment has been pulled. Stay vigilant, these things rarely just go away.

We reported earlier this month that UTOPIA was once again facing legislative attack at the state level in the form of HB60. While the House has focused on other issues, the Utah Senate is launching its own attack. SB190 has also put UTOPIA in the crosshairs and events are happening quickly. Time to contact your elected officials, Utah!

According to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org, SB190 as originally crafted, could have curtailed a pending deal between UTOPIA and Australian firm Macquierie. From Harris' February 19 story on the bill:

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Since its introduction, the bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor committee. There was broad and fierce opposition and Sen. John Valentine, the sponsor of the bill, amended it. The changes made the bill palatable to Macquarie and it passed through committee to the Senate Floor on Feb. 24.

After the bill passed through the committee, Valentine introduced a floor amendment that will prevent new cities from joining the network. Harris now reports:

His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

The bill is now awaiting a vote on in the Senate. It is imperative that you contact the Senate, especially your own elected offical, to voice your opposition to the bill in its current form.

These types of end runs around legislative procedure are common place. In my own limited experience working at the state legislature, I have seen contentious sections of proposed bills added or removed to make a deal, only to be added or removed later on the floor and during conference commitee. In places that do not have a full time legislature, changing proposed legislation on top of a deadline is an effective way to take advantage of the clock to achieve an unpopular goal. It is important to remember that legislation is fluid until the gavel comes down sine die.

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.

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.

Kansas Anti-Competition Bill Authored by Cable Lobbyists

We learned a lot today about the anti-competition bill (SB 304) in Kansas to limit Internet network investments. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin discovered the source of the bill, the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association:

That's a lobby group with members such as Comcast, Cox, Eagle Communications, and Time Warner Cable. The bill was introduced this week, referred to the Committee on Commerce, and scheduled for discussion for Tuesday of next week.

That hearing will now be delayed as the cable lobbyists strategize on a bill that less transparently serves only their interests. As usual, we see the cable lobbyists claiming that municipal networks use taxpayer dollars, despite the reality that most do not.

Much of what I see in Kansas points to Time Warner Cable being behind this - a lame attempt to stop Google Fiber using lobbying power rather than innovating and investing. However, the bill has tremendously negative implications for rural Kansas because local governments are often the only entities that care if their communities have the Internet access they need in the modern economy.

It stretches credulity to think Kansas would pass a bill that would prevent Google from expanding its network in the region. But we have seen a number of states (ahem, North Carolina) pass cable-authored bills that prevent communities from building fiber optic networks if they have anything faster than dial-up available in even part of town.

The cable lobby would consider it a win if they can still push a bill through that would kill municipal networks while allowing approaches like Google Fiber and Wicked (in Lawrence) to expand.

Fortunately, Google has a history of opposing restraints on local authority to build networks and it is part of a business coalition opposing this bill. As with most Americans, that coalition believes any decision on whether a network is a wise investment should be made locally, not in Topeka or in DC.

Craig Settles' had a Chanute official on the Gigabit Nation audio show to discuss the bill and impact on rural Kansas:


Online Internet Radio at Blog Talk Radio with cjspeaks on BlogTalkRadio

Others writing about this bill and negative impact on Kansas included Karl Bode at Broadband Reports, the Consumerist, Newspoodle, and Daily Kos.

And finally, Chanute created a video about this bill:

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