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ILSR Receives Community Broadband Advocacy Award

The Southeast Assocation of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors has announced Christopher Mitchell will receive its 2014 Community Broadband Advocacy Award at its upcoming conference on March 24 and 25 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I am honored to receive this recognition alongside Jim Baller and the Georgia Municipal Association, with whom I have worked on several occasions to further the public interest. I've long wanted to attend the SEATOA conference and hope readers will join me there.

SEATOA is a regional chapter of NATOA - the National Association of Telecommuniations Officers and Advisors.

I am excited to travel back to North Carolina after several years away from the state, to see how networks like Wilson's Greenlight have progressed and to learn more about efforts to expand universal access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

SEATOA Conference Set for March 21st-22nd

This March 21-22, the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA) will be hosting the "Networking Communities for the New South" conference. The conference will be held at the Omni Charlotte Hotel.

We are excited to see Susan Crawford as the keynote speaker. From the conference page:

She will provide a broadband policy reality check, and answer – among other questions –whether current so-called “level playing field”, “free-market” policies are leaving us with a second class network that only the rich can afford.

(For a preview, listen to Susan in a recent Broadband Bits Podcast. She talked about her recent book and discussed the need for long term U.S. telecom policy change.)

Check out the schedule and list of other speakers [PDF] and start planning your itinerary. You can also register online.

Some of the issues discussed will be:

  • Public and private resources
  • How to offer services to schools and other government institutions as a way to save costs and yet build a platform for high bandwidth use
  • Info on the Research Triangle Park's North Carolina Next Generation Network, (NCNGN - sounds like NC Engine)
  • The National Public Safety FirstNET and municipal network
  • How to build, operate, and integrate social media into, local Public, Education and Government (PEG) channels, and into your organization's lobbying campaigns to obtain optimal reach

National Association of Counties Covers South Carolina Laws to Restrict Community Broadband

The National Association of Counties (NACo) gave us permission to reprint an article they recently wrote in their County News publication. NACo advocates for county governments on federal policy that impacts local decsion and local control. NACo is based in Washington, D.C.

In the article, author Charles Taylor discusses the perils of Oconee and Orangeburg Counties in South Carolina, both involved in broadband projects supported by stimulus funds. Because of a new law passed this past summer, those projects are in danger and the possibility of future projects is all but extinguished.

Rural counties' broadband projects face uncertainty

The success of two South Carolina counties’ plans to provide broadband access to rural areas could be in jeopardy because of a new state law that severely restricts public broadband projects. It also essentially bans new ones.

Oconee and Orangeburg counties received more than $27 million in federal stimulus funds in 2010 for rural broadband projects.

A South Carolina law, enacted in July, requires local governments that offer broadband Internet services to charge rates similar to those of private companies, even if the government could provide the service at a lower cost and the area is not served by commercial providers.

“It effectively prohibits municipalities from operating their own broadband systems through a series of regulatory and reporting requirements,” said Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA). “These practically guarantee municipalities could never find financing because the requirements would render even a private sector broadband company inoperable.”

SEATOA represents local government broadband planners and community video programmers in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. While the statute won’t kill the projects already underway, it could limit their potential.

Orangeburg Seal

Orangeburg County received more than $18 million to build a “last-mile” fiber project — connecting directly to end users — serving about 25 percent of the rural county. It also invested about $4 million of its own money in the project.

“We have the ability to move forward and complete the project that we have,” said Harold Young, Orangeburg County administrator. “But the viability of the whole broadband system is put in jeopardy because this bill doesn’t allow us to expand past the initial phase of what we were doing.” That expansion is needed to make the project sustainable. Orangeburg, a “persistent poverty” county as defined by federal standards, applied for the grant to address “economic and educational disparities that exist within our community.”

Jim Baller is an attorney who has been involved in legislative and legal battles over dozens of cases of state barriers to public broadband projects. “For them not to have complete freedom to do what their citizens need is very difficult to justify,” he said.

Oconee County was awarded $9.6 million for a so-called “middle-mile” project to build a fiber-optic network to serve community anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and libraries in rural areas of the county, and wholesale customers.

“The legislation, for us, is not a means to prevent us from operating our system. It’s meant to make it more difficult,” Oconee County Administrator Scott Moulder said, “and it’s meant to make it more competitive with the private market.” He doesn’t believe the statute will hamper the county’s ability to comply with the requirements of the federal grant it received, “but that’s still left to be seen, though,” he said.

ILSR Logo

Laws such as South Carolina’s are being passed in a growing number of states, according to Christopher Mitchell of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In recent years, 19 states have passed laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband projects. And the major telephone and cable companies have opposed public broadband as anti-competitive and contributed heavily to legislators in states passing restrictive laws, he said.

“They want to prevent any new Davids. They’re Goliaths, and they want to make sure that to the extent that they can strangle David in his crib, they’re doing that,” Mitchell said. “To the extent that more networks pop up that show how much less expensive and more reliable (they are) — and faster speed can be distributed at a lower cost — these companies look worse.”

The Minnesota and Georgia state legislatures this year took up bills that could ban public broadband projects; the Georgia measure was turned into a study bill, and the Minnesota bill never made it out of committee.

That was good news for Bob Fox, a Renville County, Minn. commissioner. His county and neighboring Sibley County — along with 11 towns — have developed a proposal to provide “fiber to the farm,” homes, businesses and government facilities in these rural counties.

The RS (for Renville Sibley) Fiber project has created a joint powers board, as Minnesota law allows, to develop a system whose construction would be backed by revenue bonds. All participating communities have until Sept. 25 to vote on whether to participate.

“Agriculture has changed tremendously in the last couple of decades,” said Fox, who also chairs NACo’s Agriculture and Rural Development Steering Committee. “The technology is probably one of the pieces that’s lagging.” He believes that if restrictive legislation is resurrected next year it would grandfather projects already underway.

However these projects work out, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Mitchell sees rural broadband as a potential economic engine — with a parallel to electricity. “Broadband in rural areas is important to me because it improves the economy everywhere,” he said. “Rural electrification provided a turbo-boost to the economy because everyone was participating. And we see the exact same effect in broadband.”

Community Broadband Bits 5 - Catharine Rice of SEATOA

For our fifth episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we have a discussion with Catharine Rice of SEATOA - the Southeastern Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. We discuss legislation in North and South Carolina designed to stop communities from building their own networks.

Catharine Rice has been a strong advocate for local authority, helping communities respond to the CenturyLink and Time Warner Cable lobbying Juggernaut in the state capitals. After many years of successfully stopping these big companies from enacting anti-competition legislation, North Carolina passed a bill in 2011 and South Carolina in 2012.

You can read our stories that touch on South Carolina here and North Carolina here.

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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via a different tool using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music.

Resource: Useful Flyers in Georgia Legislation

After AT&T began pushing a bill in Georgia to revoke local authority to decide to build a publicly owned broadband network, the Georgia Municipal Assocation (GMA) and the SouthEast Assocation of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors began reaching out to Georgia's legislators to explain how the private sector has left serious gaps in broadband coverage, which stopped the bill. Below are two flyers they report being particularly helpful.

GMA, SEATOA, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance are among the vast majority that believe communities should decide locally if a community network makes sense to bring next-generation connections to local businesses and residents.

Georgia is a conservative state and AT&T had enlisted the support of the Senate Majority Leader in pushing their anti-competition broadband bill. Unfortunately for AT&T, their CEO was too candid on calls with Wall Street, contradicting AT&T's lobbyist talking points in Georgia.

Georgia Flyer1

Note, that AT&T was originally trying to define broadband at the absurd 200kbps level but a substitute bill would have bumped it up to a still-too-low 768kbps, which is referenced above.

The other flyer that apparently made a difference with legislators is here:

Georgia Flyer2

Rememeber that elected officials often think of broadband in binary terms. You have it or you don't. In their mind, if you have options aside from dial-up, the problem is solved. These are people that often do not know what is needed to attract economic development, work efficiently from home, or successfully compete remote education courses.

Graphics that explain why we need next-generation networks rather than simply expanding last-century DSL can be remarkably helpful.

Before talking with elected officials, consider adapting one of these flyers or even just using it to explain why communities should be free to decide locally if a network is a smart investment for them.

SEATOA Conference Coming Up in Chattanooga

The SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors has its annual conference in Chattanooga this year - March 12 and 13th. The conference includes a tour of EPB's Gigabit network (the largest muni network in the nation) and its PEG operations.

This conference will undoubtedly be buzzing about the legislation in South Carolina and Georgia that aims to shut down community networks just like North Carolina did last year.

Deena Shetler, the associate Chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau will be giving the keynote. Give it a look if you are in the neighborhood.

No Moratorium in North Carolina ... For Now

Success! After a few nerve-wracking months, North Carolina's state government has decided not to preempt local communities from building the broadband infrastructure they need. The full legislative explanation of how this standoff ended is available from Stop the Cap! as narrated by Catharine Rice.

We all benefit from the efforts of Catherine Rice, Jay Ovittore, and many others to ensure communities can maintain their self-determination in the information age. These grassroots efforts, coupled with several key Representatives and Senators, have once again prevented incumbents from consolidating their market power by outlawing competition from publicly owned networks.

Make no mistake, well-funded lobbyists will continue pushing for these changes both in North Carolina and in many other states. We should encourage the US Congress to "clarify" (in the words of the FCC) that states have no right to prevent communities from building this important infrastructure.

FCC Commissioner Tells NC Audience, States Should Not Preempt Community Broadband

Thanks to Catharine Rice, who tipped me off to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn's presentation at the SEATOA Conference yesterday. SEATOA is a regional group of states from the southeast of the US that are part of NATOA. Commissioner Clyburn noted that the FCC and the National Broadband Plan oppose state preemption of local broadband networks.

Thus, the Plan recommends that Congress clarify that State and local governments should not be restricted from building their own broadband networks. I firmly believe that we need to leverage every resource at our disposal to deploy broadband to all Americans. If local officials have decided that a publicly-owned broadband network is the best way to meet their citizens’ needs, then my view is to help make that happen.

One example of a town that took control of its own digital destiny – Bristol, Virginia saw additional jobs created in that area. And last month I heard Lafayette, Louisiana’s City-Parish President, describe the development of economic opportunities in his city, that were a direct result of the fiber network built by the community. Right here in North Carolina, I understand that Wilson and Salisbury are trying to invest in fiber optic systems, that they hope will transform their local economies.

When cities and local governments are prohibited from investing directly in their own broadband networks, citizens may be denied the opportunity to connect with their nation and improve their lives. As a result, local economies likely will suffer. But broadband is not simply about dollars and cents, it is about the educational, health, and social welfare of our communities. Preventing governments from investing in broadband, is counter –productive, and may impede the nation from accomplishing the Plan’s goal of providing broadband access to every American and every community anchor institution.

I can only hope that North Carolina's Legislature listen to this speech before they vote on preempting communities from building broadband networks. However, as documented at Stop the Cap, Time Warner and other telcos are able to talk pretty loudly with their campaign contributions.

Commissioner Clyburn's full comments are available here.