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Chris responds to President Obama’s endorsement of community networks on MPR's "Daily Circuit"

Minnesota Public Radio’s Daily Circuit (MPR) interviewed Chris about President Obama’s recent endorsment to end restrictions on states that limit local broadband authority. Chris and Danna Mackenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, answered questions about what Obama’s announcement means for faster, cheaper, more reliable Internet for consumers. 

Chris explained that it’s great to see federal government “getting it right” and championing the rights of local governments. He also discredits the argument about public money for Internet networks, and addresses why municipal approaches offer some of the wisest and most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

You can listen to a 3-minute clip in the audio player below, or click the link to hear the entire interview: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/11/13/daily-circuit-net-neutrality

 

Comcast Ghostwrites Letters From Elected Officials to FCC

It is common knowledge that Comcast and a number of political leaders enjoy special relationships. Nevertheless, it was still a bit shocking to see the level at which Comcast's army has infiltrated the political process as uncovered in a recent Verge article.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lawyers and lobbyists often write legislation for lawmakers to introduce. This past summer, the puppetry went one step further when Comcast crafted letters supporting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Those letters were then submitted to the FCC from the offices of a number of politicians known to receive support from the cable giant. We applaud both Comcast and their pet lawmakers for their efficiency!

The Verge was also able to obtain email threads that document how lobbyists drafted letters of support and sent them on to local elected officials, who then made insignificant changes in the signature line or transferred the exact language on to official stationery before sending it on to the FCC.

We have taken the liberty of presenting some of the letters below. You can see a few email exchanges that detail the conversation between Comcast lobbyists and political staff.

The Verge spoke with Michal Copps, former FCC Chairman, who now advises at Common Cause:

"When a mayor of a town or a town councilman or a legislator writes in — we look at that, and if someone is of a mind already to approve something like this they might say: ‘ah-ha, see!’" says Copps, who is now an advisor at Common Cause and opposes the merger. "These letters can be consequential, there’s no question about that."

The comment process has been tainted because Comcast has also used gentle nudging to obtain support from organizations benefitting from its charitable foundation. Columbia Professor Tim Wu has studied the potential merger:

"I think they have failed to meet their burden of persuasion that this will make life better for the average American consumer…What does the average American consumer care about? They care about prices being too high. Comcast could have said this merger will lower prices and committed itself to lower prices but it has made no sign that it will do this." 

Wu, who reviewed the documents obtained by The Verge, said that the new information "confirms the impression that evidence that the merger is in the ‘public interest’ is simply being manufactured."

"It’s sort of become an amusement park where the fake stuff outnumbers the real stuff," Wu says. "The fact is a lot of telecom issues are pretty obscure, they often don’t get the public very excited. So what do you do? You buy it."

Apparently, these elected officials did not expect their constituents to notice that they supported one of the most unpopular proposed mergers in history. In order to set the record straight, we encourage constituents to contact them and let them know that you do not support the merger, as they claim you do.

We also suggest that you let them know that you do not cotton to the idea that they let lobbyists put words in their mouths, regardless of the issue.

Most importantly, remember this incident the next time you enter the voting booth.

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.

Greater Minnesota Partnership Focuses on Non-Metro Need - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 136

Like many states, Minnesota has a major metro area that generally has higher quality Internet access than non-metro communities. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a coalition of businesses, chambers, nonprofits, and cities from across the state, have made improving Internet access a major priority in their efforts to influence the state legislature.

This week, we talk with Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former Minnesota state Rep and remains a small business owner. We discuss the need to improve access even as major cable lobbyists fight in the capital to preserve the status quo. The Partnership believes state barriers to community networks should be removed.

Dorman offers a unique perspective as a former member of the Minnesota Legislature. He knows what it is like to be lobbied constantly by one side of the issue but rarely hear from the other. Fortunately, the Greater Minnesota Partnership is working to provide that other side as best it can.

We previously discussed the Border-to-Border fund in episode 119.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Bill to Establish Broadband Grant Program in Montana State Legislature

In Missoula and Bozeman, momentum is building for improved connectivity by way of community network infrastructure. As usual, funding a municipal network is always one of the main challenges, but the state appears uninterested in helping them. State Representative Kelly McCarthy recently dropped HB 14 into the hopper, a bill to create a broadband development fund primarily for private companies.

The bill authorizes $15 million in general obligation bonds for broadband infrastructure projects for middle-mile and last-mile connectivity in rural areas. Unfortunately, projects built and maintained by private entities have priority per the language of section 3(2)(b).

The state legislature would be wise to follow Minnesota's lead and establish a program that is available to all as in the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Private entities are eligible to apply along with public entities and nonprofits, but do not receive special consideration.

If anything, the long history of success from cooperatives and local government approaches in infrastructure is favorable to the history of consolidation and poor services that big monopolies have offered in rural areas.

It never ceases to amaze us that people designing programs to use taxpayer money in expanding essential infrastructurel would earmark it only to subsidize entities that are the least accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. Ultimately you have to wonder whether these programs are designed to benefit local communities or just the companies that can best afford lobbyists.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 14, 2014

Communities all over the country have nearby examples of successful broadband networks at their fingertips, and this week more communities are moving ahead with plans to take back their authority to build them.

Rockford, Illinois city leaders announced a proposal that would tap in to 900 miles of existing fiber optic cable. Kelsie Passolt with NBC13 in Rockford reported on the city’s steps to connect its community.    

Ansel Herz with The Stranger in Seattle expresses frustration with the city’s pace of progress. He interviewed a former broadband task force member, Bill Covington for context surrounding the city’s decision to move forward on another study. 

"I want to see if the Murray administration will say, 'Let's put the money on the table, and take the heat, and we will follow the Chattanooga or Tacoma Click! model. Chattanooga's model, with the city's public utility taking the lead and overcoming lawsuits from the likes of Comcast, has been a rousing success.

Put a pin in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. The state’s broadband institute is discussing strategies for high speed Internet. Tony Dobrowolski with the Berkshire Eagle reports that “If officials are interested, Holahan said the MBI is willing to help town governments with the cost of connecting residents and businesses.”

And your nugget of joy for this week is a gem from Opelika Power in Opelika, Alabama. Their clever advertisement makes us smile, we hope you enjoy as well!

The New York Times’ Edward Wyatt dug deep to reveal that even sweet potatoes have a connection to community broadband. His story highlights what happens when state laws get in the way of Internet competition.  

“…A three-year-old state law prohibits the city of Wilson’s utility from expanding its broadband network outside its home territory.

“The technology is right there across the county line,” Mr. Bissette said on a recent afternoon, after plowing up a field of sweet potatoes for harvest. “If we could get the service, we could make sure the temperature is right, that air is circulating. It would make life a whole lot simpler.”

It’s not new that there’s big money in telecommunications legislation, but just how much is going into elected official's coffers? Sarah Zhang with Gizmodo breaks down the numbers, collecting the campaign contributions to politicians from Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, and their trade group the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. See where your legislator ranks on the list. 

 

Net Neutrality

President Obama's call for reclassification of Internet access caused a stir this week. Fortune's Peter Sucio explained what that would mean for consumers.

“Comcast and Verizon want to scare the public and Congress by calling Title II ‘regulation of the Internet,’” says Evan Greer, campaign director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future. “Title II is about preventing a select few companies from regulating what people can and can see and do on the Internet.”

But Brian Heaton wrote in GovTech this week that it's definitely much more complex than President Obama's public statement led many to believe. 

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and an advocate for improved Internet access, wasn’t sure how Obama’s words will impact the commission’s decision. But he felt the president should be taking a stronger lead on the issue.

“I think the president is trying to provide cover for the FCC to take the necessary steps to protect the open Internet despite incredibly strong opposition from the cable/telephone companies and their proxies,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell also provided insight on a number of other news reports on the issue this week. OPB's "Think Out Loud", MPR's "Daily Circuit", and KCRW's "To the Point" were among them. 

Rachel Swan with San Francisco Weekly wrote that her city might not be waiting for the FCC to decide what happens to the Internet. It’s a message we hope other communities hear loud and clear:

“There's a glimmering possibility that the agency might not rule in favor of an open Internet. And even if it does side with Obama, consumers are still left with the fundamental problem of a small group of companies controlling a critical resource. 

"We have to realize that net neutrality is not a silver bullet, when it comes to giving consumers freedom," Electronic Frontier Foundation activist April Glaser says.

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC in Support of Restoring Local Authority

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments on FCC petitions filed by Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have been following the proceedings that may prove to be the tipping point in the movement to regain local telecommunications authority.

Our organization collaborated with eight other groups and two D.C. Council Members to provide detailed comments for the Commission's consideration. Our group supplied examples of the benefits munis bring to local communities. In addition to providing connectivity where the incumbents fail to meet demand, our comments point out that municipal networks encourage private investment. We provide concrete evidence of both.

With our partners, we also addressed the fact that state restrictions like the ones in North Carolina and Tennessee are not needed. Local communities must go through a rigorous, transparent process everywhere before investing. State legislative barriers are the product of intense lobbying from the cable and telecommunications giants.

As we point out to the Commission, municipal networks are an important tool to bring ubiquitous Internet access to the U.S.:

The FCC is tasked with ensuring high speed access is expanded to all Americans on a reasonable basis and to remove barriers to broadband deployment. Local governments have proved to be an important tool in expanding access to high speed Internet access. Both Chattanooga and Wilson have neighbors that publicly want the local municipal network to expand access to them. Both Chattanooga and Wilson are prepared to invest in connecting their neighbors. Restoring authority to local governments, so they may decide for themselves if a municipal investment or partnership is an appropriate way to expand high speed Internet access, will result in a more rapid deployment of high speed Internet access.

We also filed comments alone to provide the FCC a small sample of the support people and organizations have shared with us. Even before the comment period, we heard from local governments and organizations that passed resolutions in favor of local authority, members of the business community that support local authority, and media outlets that endorse local decision making.

From our closing comments:

ILSR stands with local businesses, residents, media outlets, and many others in encouraging the FCC to grant this petition, restoring the capacity of local governments to invest in next generation Internet access or partner to the same effect, if they so choose. We have worked with communities across the nation and recognize that this is not a partisan issue at the local level. It is about jobs, education, and quality of life. Restoring the right of communities to invest in fiber networks will result in faster deployment of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet networks.

National Journal Traces Growth of Partisanship in Municipal Broadband Debate

In an excellent piece titled “How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet,” the National Journal outlines the disappointing political evolution of municipal broadband, from a bipartisan local choice issue to an anti-Obama Administration, pro-incumbent telecom, states’ rights issue. 

It was not so long ago (2005, to be precise) that three Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman) joined three Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would enshrine the principle of local choice explicitly in law, preempting anti-muni state laws pushed by incumbent lobbyists. A year later, 215 House Republicans voted for a bill that included a similar preemption provision. In 2007, even more Republican Senators joined McCain and Graham, including Olympia Snowe, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith. Their communications bill, including local choice provisions, narrowly missed becoming the law of the land due to fights over unrelated net neutrality issues. 

Yet somehow, in 2014, we have the Blackburn anti-muni amendment passing the House floor with nearly unanimous Republican support: 223-200. There are multiple reasons for this, including the generational shift in the Republican Party away from moderates like McCain and towards the more insurrectionist Tea Party. The Journal article also cites the ubiquitous hostility to anything associated with President Obama, even extending to statements made by his nominees at the FCC in favor of federal preemption. Ever greater lobbying spending by cable and telecom incumbents has helped muddy the water for municipal broadband as well.

Yet even some of the same Republicans who once supported local choice now oppose it. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the current and former Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles communications issues, was one of the leading figures in pushing the bill that included preemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2014, he joined his caucus in voting for Blackburn’s amendment to stop such preemption. From the Journal:

An Upton spokesman claimed there's nothing inconsistent about supporting a bill to nullify state restrictions and opposing FCC action that would do the same thing.

"Voters and their elected representatives, not bureaucrats at the FCC, should make the decision whether to spend tax dollars on municipal broadband," the spokesman said in a statement.    

This is conveniently myopic logic, considering it is voters and their elected representatives at the local level who are being blocked from deciding municipal broadband issues in some 20 states but the very laws Upton has helped keep in place.

The article, while somewhat disheartening about the current state of things, also underscores a fundamental truth about community networks: they are not intrinsically partisan. There is no set-in-stone law that says Republicans must oppose them at all costs. They are not about government mandates, the size of government, executive overreach, or any other red herring. Community networks are about choice, exercised by residents and the elected officials that are their neighbors, to decide for themselves what they need and how to get it. It doesn’t get much more Jeffersonian than that.

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

Revisiting the Blackburn Amendment Debates

REMINDER - Today is the last day to file comments in the opening round of the FCC petitions of Wilson and Chattanooga. Information on how to file here.

Last month, we covered the progress of U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to restore local decision-making as its budget wormed its way through committee and into a larger appropriations bill. Her quest to keep state bans and restrictions on community networks in place (including in her home state of Tennessee, where Chattanooga EPB has filed a petition to start serving neighbors in need) is impressive for its boldness, if not its logical consistency. Impervious to many observers and commenters who noted her extensive financial support from incumbent telcos, she succeeded in passing the amendment on the House floor by a vote of 223-200.

The points raised by Representative Blackburn on the House floor in support of her amendment deserve some attention, as does the rebuttal offered by Representative Jose Serrano of New York’s 15 district, who rose against the amendment and in defense of the right of local communities to decide for themselves how to meet their broadband needs. Few of Blackburn’s arguments will surprise regular observers of the telco incumbent playbook, but there are some highlights that deserve special focus.

Rep. Blackburn based nearly her entire argument against FCC preemption on the idea that states are closer to the people than Washington, and that the FCC shouldn’t tell the local folks what to do:

“[Chairman Wheeler] wrongly assumes that Washington knows best, and forgets that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top down.”

“...Twenty states across this country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees. These state legislatures and governors have not only listened but have responded to the voices of their constituents. They are closer to the people than the Chairman of the FCC.  They are accountable to their voters.”

“...State governments across the country understand, and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

We could not agree more, Rep. Blackburn: the right answer does not always come from the top down. Which is exactly why state legislators and incumbent lobbyists should get out of the way and allow local communities to find their own answer for affordable broadband access. In his time on the floor, Rep. Serrano raised this point as well:

"Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. 

[Blackburn’s] amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leader to determine if their broadband needs are being met."

Representative Blackburn also raised the specter of the “failed” UTOPIA network, and charged that the FCC would somehow force all states to do something similar:

“For example, look at the failed UTOPIA project, that has created massive disruption and is challenging taxpayers… That doesn't sound like a model the federal government needs to force against the wishes of state elected officials” 

No one is “forcing” any kind of municipal broadband model on any community; under preemption each community would simply be free to choose for itself. The unfortunate state legislators who may potentially see the federal government go “against their wishes” are in fact forcing a cable and telecom monopoly model on local communities. 

Rep. Serrano noted the example of Chattanooga EPB, where gigabit connections can be had by anyone for $70 per month from the municipal utility and potential customers are clamoring for service but are blocked by state law. He also rooted out the red herring of “forcing” a given model on anyone: 

“Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist.

“Broadband is something that we need to expand... It should be available everywhere, and it should be available in every possible place - rural, suburban, inner city, in homes, in schools. 

We have to build the infrastructure to make that happen.” 

Rep. Serrano also submitted several letters into the Congressional Record in support of FCC preemption, including those submittted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

As important as it is to name and shame the politicians (such as Rep. Blackburn) who act on behalf of their corporate sponsors to undermine local communities, it is equally important to give credit where it is due. In this case, a pat on the back is due to Rep. Serrano, who took time on the House floor to point out some of the more ludicrous straw man arguments used by the anti-community network crowd. 

The full Congressional record of their exchange can be seen here (the relevant debate starts on page 6280). Youtube also has an edited video of Rep. Blackburn’s full floor statements from her own channel, where Rep. Serrano’s well-reasoned rebuttal is conspicuously absent.