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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 Chattagnooga, 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.

National Coalition Opposes Anti-Muni D.C. Legislation; Time to Call Your Rep!

The National League of Cities (NLC), National Association of Counties (NACo), and National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) joined together this morning to send a letter to Congress expressing their opposition to anti-muni legislation being discussed in the House.

As we reported yesterday, it is imperative that concerned constituents speak out against two anticipated amendments that can stifle local investment or end local telecommunications authority. The amendments are expected within the next few days, so we need to act now.

Appropriations bill H.R. 5016, introduced on July 2nd, provides funding for financial services and general government, including the FCC. H.R. 5016 will be the vehicle to force through language to further restrict community broadband networks.

The amendment most damaging to local telecommunications authority is expected to come from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The amendment's purpose is to remove authority from the FCC to preempt state laws preventing local broadband infrastructure investment. By restricting the FCC's use of its funding, the legislation will choke the agency's ability to explore its plan to influence anti-muni state barriers so local communities can decide their own fates.

As the NLC, NACo, and NATOA write in their letter to Congress:

The National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties (NACo), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) strongly urges you to oppose any amendment to HR 5016 that would hamstring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from taking any action on – indeed, even discussing – the issue of state laws that prohibit or restrict public and public/private broadband projects. It is clear that such laws harm both the public and private sectors, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, and hamper work force development.

...

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal, state, and local efforts are taking place across the Nation to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. 

State barriers to public broadband are counterproductive to the achievement of these goals. Efforts to strip funding from the FCC to even discuss this issue, let alone take action, are misplaced and wrong. Please oppose any amendment to HR 5016 or any other measure that could significantly impair community broadband deployments or public/private partnerships.

Contact your Representative's D.C. office today and tell them to vote NO on any H.R. 5016 amendment that negatively impacts community broadband, restricts the FCC, or impairs local authority over telecommunications decisions.

UPDATE: The Coaltion for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) also released a letter to Congress today. From CLIC's letter:

As Congress and the Commission have often recognized, ensuring that all Americans have reasonable and timely access to advanced telecommunications capabilities, particularly in rural and other high-cost areas, is “the great infrastructure challenge of our time.” Toward this end, Congress has assigned the Commission a central role in defining the relevant terms and standards and in identifying and removing barriers to broadband investment and competition. While preemption of State barriers to broadband investment and competition should be used rarely, in only the clearest of cases, it should not be ruled out categorically in all cases, as the Blackburn amendment would do.

At this critical time in our country’s history, we should not preclude or inhibit any potentially successful strategy that will enable our communities and America as a whole to thrive in the emerging knowledge-based global economy. Nor can we afford to take off the table any approach that may be necessary in certain cases to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition.

Read both letters below.

Call to Action: Tell Your D.C. Officials to Vote NO!

H.R. 4752 from Rep Latta (R-OH) will be brought up in the House, likely as an appropriations rider, some time within the next few days. In the past several months, the municipal network movement has made great strides. If passed, this bill's content can be a significant setback. We encourage you to call the D.C. office of your elected officials and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 4752, NO on any rider based on H.R. 4752's language, and NO on any amendment that restricts FCC authority.

Be very specific when it comes to municipal networks - local governments should be the ones to decide whether a network makes sense. These amendments are designed to strip the power from the FCC that would allow it to ensure local governments can make this decision.

H.R. 4752's language would prevent the FCC from regulating Internet service providers under Title II. There is also some indication that the House will consider an amendment on municipal broadband; constituents need to stop the rider and the amendment from moving forward. 

This bill was introduced months ago. According to OpenSecrets.org, its Republican sponsor has received more than $320,000 in campaign contributions from the communications sector since 2007. 

The Free Press has also spoken out against this bill, which would help destroy network neutrality and this lethal amendment.

Get the word out to your communities ASAP! Call your Rep's D.C. office and urge him or her to vote NO on this bill or on any similar rider and NO on any amendment restricting FCC authority. As you know, if the FCC is limited in this way, its authority to take other meaningful action to support municipal networks will be compromised.

When you call your Representative's D.C. office, ask first to speak to the staffer in charge of telecom. If you live in a community where you have benefitted from a municipal network or in a community that is exploring the option, share your experiences. Let them know that you not want Congress limiting FCC authority in this way.

Update: Restoring Local Authority to Build Community Networks

It has been a busy few weeks for those of focused on restoring local authority to communities over the matter of building Internet networks. But for those of you who are just wondering what is happening, we haven't done the best job of keeping you in the loop.

A few weeks ago, we noted the blog post by Chairman Wheeler in which he again affirmed his intent to restore local decision-making authority to communities.

Some are wondering if Chairman Wheeler will take action or is just making empty threats. After years of the previous FCC Chair specializing in all talk, no action, it is a good question to ask.

From the information I have been able to gather, I believe Chairman Wheeler is very serious about removing these barriers. And so do the big cable and telephone company lobbyists. They have been spreading their falsehoods in op-eds and convincing a few Congressional Republicans to attack a straw man they created.

Eleven Senators signed a letter to Chairman Wheeler on June 5, in which they claimed he was poised to "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers." This is nonsense on multiple levels. As we have carefully explained in our fact sheet on financing municipal networks [pdf], the vast majority of municipal networks have used zero taxpayer dollars. This argument is simply a dodge to hide the fact that the big cable and telephone companies want to prevent any possibility of competition.

On June 12, some sixty Republicans signed a similarly misleading letter to the Chairman. What is particularly galling about both letters is that they justify their opposition to any FCC action because the states are closer to the people than "unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C."

Can you hazard a guess who is closer to the people and more trusted than elected officials in the state capital? A big gold star to anyone who answered "local governments." That's right, the very people who should be deciding this matter and the elected officials that Chairman Wheeler wants to re-empower to make important decisions for their community!

Both letters are framed that the Chairman is forcing local governments to go into competition with the existing industry. He is proposing to ensure only that the state cannot block local governments from making that choice merely because the cable and telehpone companies spend millions of dollars lobbying the legislature with no countervailing force.

And it is worth noting that some states, including North Carolina at the behest of Time Warner Cable, have not only prevented local governments from building their own networks but also effectively banned communities from investing in infrastructure that third parties could use to compete with the big carriers.

Fortunately, this false framing from the industry is not the only recent development. We have seen the formation of CLIC - the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, which you should be a member of.

We have seen letters from local ISPs and Mayors (some of which will soon be posted here) to Chairman Wheeler explaining the importance of encouraging investment in next-generation networks. This from Mayor Bruce Rose of Wilson, North Carolina.

This approach has also produced strong enduring results. The City of Wilson’s credit rating was upgraded by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s in late 2008, shortly after the Greenlight service launched. I am proud to note that Moody’s recently maintained our Aa2/A1 bond rating after 6 years of operating this broadband network, in a report which emphasized the highly responsible nature of our city’s implementation of this Gigabit network, and its projected long term stability.

The upshot is that we have an FCC Chair who wants to restore local authority but an industry that is going to respond to any effort along those lines with lies and smears. Nothing we aren't used to, but we need to get organized. Join CLIC, pass resolutions, and write letters.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.

Tim Danahey and Chris Mitchell Talk Muni's

Tim Danahey recently brought Chris Mitchell on his show to talk about municipal networks and their role in preserving network neutrality. Tim is a fan of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and our work.

Tim is a great interviewer because he is up on the issue and politically savvy. From the show website:

If President Obama or the FCC don’t stand up for the people, the open internet will soon end. If you want to get your internet voice out to the world, you may have to pay for the priority. Furthermore, you may have to out-bid well-funded corporate internet users. The President shows no sign of upholding his 2007 promise to sustain net neutrality and his appointee to head the FCC is a communication industry insider. What can the people do? First, try to get the President to keep his promise. If he won’t, then many communities in the United States are setting-up community-owned broadband service that is up to 40 times faster than corporate-owned internet service provides. It’s also less expensive and it is becoming a powerful economic development tool for communities that have already implemented it. In fact, it’s so good that Koch-funded ALEC is trying to shut it down. But we can do it. Here’s how.

 

MAG-Net Hosts Community Networks Discussion With Christopher

The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) recently hosted a Community Cohort Call titled Tech In The City: A Conversation About Community Broadband Access. Chris Mitchell, Andrea Figueroa Martinez, John St. Julien from Lafayette, and other community broadband advocates discuss the current state of U.S. broadband infrastructure.

Chris offers perspective on monopolistic behavior from current mega providers and how they find ways to limit our options. What can we do to counteract the powerful cable and telecommunications lobbies to preserve an open and free Internet? How can we guarantee affordable access? This panel discussion looks at long-term strategies and actions we can take now.