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Media Coverage Roundup: Georgia AT&T Bill to Kill Community Broadband

In the wake of a bill in Georgia to revoke local authority and substitute it with state say-so over whether a community can build a broadband network, multiple outlets have covered the situation.

As usual, Stop the Cap! was quick on the ball, offering original in-depth commentary. Phil digs into the campaign cash history to find the real motivations behind this bill:

Rogers’ legislation is exceptionally friendly to the state’s incumbent phone and cable companies, and they have returned the favor with a sudden interest in financing Rogers’ 2012 re-election bid. In the last quarter alone, Georgia’s largest cable and phone companies have sent some big thank-you checks to the senator’s campaign:

  • Cable Television Association of Georgia ($500)
  • Verizon ($500)
  • Charter Communications ($500)
  • Comcast ($1,000)
  • AT&T ($1,500)

A review of the senator’s earlier campaign contributions showed no interest among large telecommunications companies operating in Georgia. That all changed, however, when the senator announced he was getting into the community broadband over-regulation business.

Phil also refutes the supposed failures cited by those pushing the bill. Not only do such stories misrepresent what really happened, some actually cite EPB's incredible 1Gbps service as demonstrating that munis are out of touch. What else would you expect from the Heartland Institute, which made its name fighting against the radical claim that cigarettes are linked to cancer?

Government Technology's Brian Heaton also covered the story in "Georgia Community Broaband in Legislative Crosshairs."

In addition, Mitchell [me] said that SB 313’s requirement of the public entity paying the same taxes or the same cost of capital as the private sector is another red herring. He said that while the provision looks reasonable on the surface, it would critically hamstring any effort to establish government-owned high-speed broadband services.

“That’s like telling me I have to pay the same taxes that another American would,” Mitchell said. “Are we talking about my middle-class neighbor, or Mitt Romney? Whose taxes am I going to pay a similar rate to? These are all issues that are left open-ended intentionally so that it’s uncertain for a community and they are more likely to end up in court, which is possibly the most devastating situation.”

Fierce Telecom riffed on the GovTech story here.

Karl Bode at DSL Reports asks if "Georgia wants to be a broadband backwater."

As noted, ISPs particularly love bills that require endless public hearings and votes, where deep-pocketed carriers can can out spend supporters by millions of dollars on (often incredibly sleazy) PR campaigns aimed at shouting these services down. That same money could be used to upgrade last mile connectivity, but isn't thanks to the uncompetitive markets these companies are trying to keep uncompetitive. The result? Continued slow speeds, high prices and poor service, all protected by the very government ISPs claim they don't want involved in the market.

And finally, Slashdot got the point of the bill wrong (ignoring many of the provisions of the bill) but did start a conversation about Georgia "Prohibiting Subsidies for Municipal Broadband. One of the commenters lives just outside one of the towns that Majority Leader Rogers cited as a bad example. This commenter disagrees with that assesment. Strongly.

Until the city implemented a broadband plan with cable TV, we had ONE choice for cable TV and virtually NO high speed internet especially in the county (Bellsouth/AT&T DSL is a massive joke to anyone who lived in the county and so was high speed internet connections). Suddenly, when the city decided "We want to attract more business to the area and also supply all of our schools with high speed internet services..." then WHOA! the local cable company went into overdrive. They started expanding their high speed internet services much faster and pushed them out into the county. They offered better bundle rates AND dropped their cost for cable TV alone. The move by the city _incentivized_ the local cable MONOPOLY to get off their ass and start offering the services to both city and county that they had been promising for a while and to bring their price down to a more competitive level.

And finally, the Augusta Chronicle covered the proposed bill and the increased campaign contributions from telco and cable companies to those pushing the bill:

The telecom companies have beefed up their lobbying forces this legislative session. Many lawmakers have received campaign contributions from them, including Rogers, who rejects any suggestion that they might have motivated him.

Unfortunately, the Augusta Chronicle again repeats the false claim that the public will be under the same rules as the private sector. The bill explicitly creates new rules that will only apply to public sector providers. It is right in front of them and they print blatantly false claims.

Georgia Legislature to Revoke Local Authority to Build Networks

The Georgia Senate is considering SB 313, a bill that would overrule local decision-making authority in matters of broadband. Even as connections to the Internet have become essential for communities, the Georgia Legislature is poised to make it harder for communities to get the networks they need.

We saw very similar language in North Carolina pass last year after many years of lobbying by Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink. These massive companies use their lobbying clout to stop any form of competition they could face, and they are presently threatened by the examples of many communities that have built incredible next-generation networks. For instance, see the thousands of new jobs in Chattanooga that are credited to its community fiber network.

Community networks spur competition -- it is why Chattanooga got Comcast's xfinity service before Atlanta, despite Atlanta having long been prioritized over Chattanooga previously. It is why Cox Cable, which is headquartered in Atlanta, launched its upgrades in Lafayette, Louisiana -- they felt the competition pressure from a community fiber network.

Bill supporters are already claiming that this is just an attempt to level the playing field:

"The private sector is handling this exceptionally well," Rogers said. "What they don't need is for a governmental entity to come in and compete with them where these types of services already exist. We're not outlawing a local government entity from doing this, but if they're going to compete, they can play by the same rules and ask the voters if it's okay before they go out and spend all these dollars."

We have mapped the states that enacted barriers to community networks,written extensively about level playing field arguments, and even produced a video about the level playing field:

As for whether the private sector is providing enough competition or high enough capacity networks, I leave that to individual communities to decide.

SB 313 effectively removes such decisions from local communities. It purports to just set additional terms that the public sector must meet, but many of these terms are sufficiently onerous (especially when taken all together) that communities will not be able to build the network they need.

The bill first requires communities to ask the private sector to build the necessary network. This ignores the basic fact that community networks are operated with different incentives that privately owned networks. Due to the scarcity in the market, private providers tend to keep prices higher than necessary to maximize their short term profits. Publicly owned networks lower prices (while still paying their costs) in order to spur job creation and increase digital inclusion.

The bill requires communities to pass a referendum before building a network and requires inaccurate, damning language be included on the ballot. Broadband referendums tend to invite deep-pocketed incumbent providers to spend heavily to buy the votes necessary to stop competition - see the Longmont saga for an excellent example of how hard it is for a community to stand up to these big cable corporations.

Georgia Legislature

Communities that somehow get this far are then subject to all the regulations as are private providers in addition to numerous additional regulations imposed on them by this legislation and their inherent duty to operate in an open and transparent manner. Despite being nonprofit, they are required to pay taxes and still face additional barriers that private operators do not.

They will be restricted in how they price their services and where they offer services in ways the private sector is not.

In short, this bill will make it all but impossible for communities to build networks -- even in areas that are presently unserved. The bill purports to exempt some unserved areas, but does so in a cynically evasive way. The only way a community could meet the unserved exemption is if it vowed to only build in the least economical areas -- meaning it would have to be significantly subsidized. Serving unserved areas and breaking even financially almost always requires building a network that will also cover some areas already served (because that is where you can find the margins that will cover the losses in higher expense areas).

The bill is presently in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities committee. We will continue covering it and attempt to learn which interests are pushing to revoke local authority and replace it with what distant legislators think best.

Photo used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Flickr's PhotoPhiend.

Legislation Alert: Washington Considers Community Broadband Bill

Last year we noted that a bill to expand local authority to invest in publicly owned broadband networks would return in 2012. HB 1711 is in Committee and causing a bit of a stir. "A bit of a stir" is good -- such a reaction means it has a chance at passing and giving Washington's residents a greater opportunity to have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet.

Washington's law presently allows Public Utility Districts to build fiber-optic networks but they cannot offer retail services. They are limited to providing wholesale services only -- working with independent service providers to bring telecom services to the public.

Unfortunately, this approach can be financially debilitating, particularly in rural areas. Building next generation networks in very low density areas is hard enough without being forced to split the revenues with third parties.

Last year, House Bill 2601 created a study to examine telecommunications reform, including the possibilty of municipality and public utility district provisioning. The University of Washington School of Law examined the issues and released a report [pdf] that recognizes the important role public sector investments can play:

U Washington Law School

Broadband infrastructure is this century’s interstate highway system: a public investment in an infrastructure that will rapidly connect Washington’s citizens statewide, nationally, and internationally; fuelling growth, competition, and innovation. Like highway access, the path to universal broadband access varies with the needs of the local community.

Our primary goal is to expand broadband access. We believe allowing municipalities and PUDs to provide broadband services addresses the most significant hurdles to broadband expansion: the high cost of infrastructure. In conjunction with a state USF, PUDs and municipalities are well placed to address the needs of their consumers.

A secondary goal is to promote a competitive marketplace. We believe that empowering PUDs and municipalities will spur competition which will drive innovation and improved service.

The analysis recognized the weakness of those arguing that only the private sector should be allowed to build this essential infrastructure:

To be successful private providers need to be able to generate profit for their shareholders. However, when an effective competitive marketplace does not exist, private providers only have a weak incentive to expand access to broadband services. In fact, the scarcity of service justifies the collection of high rates from users. In Washington’s urban areas, the barriers to entry are so high that incumbent providers have little trouble keeping new providers from entering the marketplace. Qwest (soon to be CenturyLink) and Comcast, merely vie for existing users, rather than expanding the overall number of ratepayers. In contrast Washington’s rural areas are characterized by low population density and large geographical distances between communities. The lack of concentrated business consumers in a given area translates into weak or non-existent business case for providers to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Arguably, rural areas are poised to reap the biggest rewards from broadband expansion, quickly integrating communities into existing networks of private and public service.

Chelan PUD

Not all public utility districts are pushing for this law to be changed. I asked the Chelan Public Utility District (one of the oldest and largest public services providers in the state, which we have previously covered here) about their position on the legislation. Chelan is not interested in offering retail services but does not oppose changes that would allow other PUDs to do so. They rightly oppose any law that would require PUDs to offer retail services -- something with which we strongly agree. State legislatures should not be telling communities what business model they have to use.

Getting back to HB 1711, it is presently in the Technology, Energy, and Communications Committee. The bill's author, Representative John McCoy has taken the arguments of opponents into account by limiting the impacted public utility districts to those in a county with 300,000 people or fewer. To build a network and offer retail services, a public utility district (or rural port district) would have to gain the approval of its governing board after a public meeting and be subject to state regulation for the services it offers.

The original bill also granted the authority to municipalities to build retail networks -- a right that munis appear to have presently but it is not clear (inviting expensive litigation from big anti-competitive providers). That provision has been removed from the present bill.

Opposition

The bill's opponents may be separated into two groups. The first is the usual gang of big, absentee corporations like CenturyLink, Frontier, and Comcast that typically oppose any legislation that could create competition to their services. They have a ton of lobbying power and very little desire or capacity to solve the rural broadband problem in Washington state.

The second group is more interesting. It is a collection of local businesses that are actually rooted in the community. Many are ISPs that operate on existing wholesale-only networks owned by public utility districts. They are afraid of either being kicked off the network or having to compete against the PUD itself in provisioning services. These are certainly legitimate fears.

Unfortunately, the small providers are also limited in the capacity to build the necessary networks needed to bring modern connections to everyone in the state. Offering service on an existing PUD network requires far less capital than building their own network. If the state wants to move toward a Washington where all residents and businesses have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, it has to risk upsetting the small ISPs. They do not have the capacity to connect rural Washington; the public utility districts and local governments have not just the capacity, but also the responsibility. It is time for the state to stop making it all but impossible for them to do so.

Get Involved

Local communities must have the freedom to build the networks they need without interference from federal or state capitals. Quoting from the Federal Communication Commissions' National Broadband Plan: "Congress should make it clear that Tribal, state, regional, and local governments can build broadband networks."

This bill will not succeed without a grassroots effort. People in Washington should contact their representatives (you can find them here), particularly those on the Committee:

make-the-call.jpg

Representative Room Phone
McCoy, John (D) Chair LEG 132A (360) 786-7864
Eddy, Deb (D) Vice Chair LEG 132D (360) 786-7848
Crouse, Larry (R) * LEG 425A (360) 786-7820
Short, Shelly (R) ** JLOB 436 (360) 786-7908
Anderson, Glenn (R) LEG 122A (360) 786-7876
Billig, Andy (D) LEG 122H (360) 786-7888
Carlyle, Reuven (D) JLOB 325 (360) 786-7814
Dahlquist, Cathy (R) JLOB 426 (360) 786-7846
Haler, Larry (R) LEG 122D (360) 786-7986
Harris, Paul (R) JLOB 427 (360) 786-7976
Hasegawa, Bob (D) JLOB 322 (360) 786-7862
Hudgins, Zack (D) LEG 438A (360) 786-7956
Kelley, Troy (D) JLOB 334 (360) 786-7890
Kristiansen, Dan (R) LEG 427A (360) 786-7967
Liias, Marko (D) JLOB 414 (360) 786-7972
McCune, Jim (R) JLOB 405 (360) 786-7824
Morris, Jeff (D) LEG 436A (360) 786-7970
Nealey, Terry (R) JLOB 404 (360) 786-7828
Wylie, Sharon (D) JLOB 417 (360) 786-7924

Former FCC Commissioner Copps recently said, "So it is regrettable that some states are considering, and even passing, legislation that could hinder local solutions to bring the benefits of broadband to their communities. It's exactly the wrong way to go."

Washington is smart to expand local authority in this matter. Local citizens are the best judge of whether a network is necessary and desirable as well as the most responsible business model.

DC Revolving Door, Comcast, and Campaign Finance Reform

One of the reasons community broadband networks face so many unique hurdles (often created deliberately by states in response to cable/dsl lobbying) is because of the many ways in which campaign finance corrupts our national and state governments.

Community broadband networks are focused on meeting community needs, not sending lobbyist armies into Washington, DC, and state capitals (though one of things we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is offer help to those that do push pro-community agendas in these areas).

To understand why DC is so focused on furthering the corporate agendas of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and others, is to understand the revolving door. (Also, understanding capture -- which we have explained previously.)

In short, many of the people who make decisions about telecommunications policy in DC have worked, will work, or are presently working for the massive companies that effectively control access to the Internet in most of America's communities.

The good folks at Geke.US have created the following Comcast Venn Diagram illustrating a small piece of the DC revolving door.

Comcast and DC's revolving door Venn Diagram

Reforming this system is a deep, seemingly intractable problem. But for those looking for answers, a good place to start is with the work of Lawrence Lessig. I just finished his Republic, Lost, which offers a grand tour of the problems resulting from the present system of campaign finance.

You can also see a number of his presentations here.

His organization, the Rootstrikers aim to get to the root of problems rather than being distracted by trying to fix symptoms of deeper problems. This is precisely what we do with our focus on community networks.

Many focus solely on resolving digital divide issues, improving rural access to the Internet, lowering the cost of broadband, or the various other problems that result from narrowly-focused private corporations owning and controlling essential communications infrastructure with inadequate regulations.

Solving the problem of ensuring all Americans have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet (a goal remarkably consistant with the FCC's supposed mission enshrined in law by the Communications Act), would be remarkably easier in a world where Congress and state legislators were not corrupted by the influence of the campaign finance system. This is why we emphatically support efforts (like those of Lessig) to reform that system.

New Year, Same Lame Cable and DSL Monopolies

It's a new year, but most of us are still stuck with the same old DSL and cable monopolies. Though many communities have built their own networks to create competition and numerous other benefits, nearly half of the 50 states have enacted legislation to make it harder for communities to build their own networks.

Fortunately, this practice has increasingly come under scrutiny. Unfortunately, we expect to see massive cable and telephone corporations use their unrivaled lobbying power to pass more laws in 2012 like the North Carolina law pushed by Time Warner Cable to essentially stop new community broadband networks.

The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for all local governments to be free of state barriers (created by big cable and phone companies trying to limit competition). Recommendation 8.19: Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks.

But modern day railroad barons like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, etc., have a stranglehold on a Congress that depends on their campaign contributions and a national capital built on the lobbying largesse of dominant industries that want to throttle any threats to their businesses. (Hat tip to the Rootstrikers that are trying to fix that mess.)

We occasionally put together a list of notable achievements of these few companies that dominate access to the Internet across the United States. The last one is available here.

FCC Logo

As you read this, remember that the FCC's National Broadband Plan largely places the future of Internet access in the hands of these corporations. On the few occasions the FCC tries to defend the public from their schemes to rip-off broadband subscribers, Republicans (joined by a number of Democrats) threaten to overrule what is supposed to be an independent agency to defend the corporations that just happen to be donors to their campaigns.

Back when most assumed AT&T would be able to push its horribly anti-competitive takeover with T-Mobile through an impotent federal government, a few stories exposed the tip of the iceberg of AT&T's astroturf efforts, as with this report from the Center for Public Integrity:

“It is important that we, as Christians, never stop working on behalf of the underserved and forgotten,” the Rev. R. Henry Martin, director of the clinic, wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in June. “It might seem like an out-of-place endorsement, but I am writing today in order to convey our support for the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.”

...

Not included in Martin’s letter to the FCC was the fact that his organization had received a $50,000 donation from AT&T just five months earlier. Indeed the Shreveport-Bossier Mission is one of at least two-dozen charities that were recipients of AT&T’s largesse and have written in support of the T-Mobile buyout, which will cut the number of national wireless companies from four to three.

When AT&T's wasn't able to buy enough influence with legitimate groups willing to sell out the interests of their members (who would pay more for their communications in a less competitive environment), it would simply create its own groups to push its interests:

AT&T Logo

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks brought an Atlanta nonprofit to the city as a partner in a $1.6-million federal-grant project, saying it would put high-speed Internet into the hands of poor people.

What he didn't say, and now says he didn't know, was that the Alliance for Digital Equality (ADE), in its first three years of existence, was nearly 100-percent funded by AT&T and spent most of its money — four of every five dollars — to pay board members, consultants, lawyers and media companies to push the global communication giant's positions on Internet and wireless regulation. Nor did Marks disclose, initially, that ADE had paid him $86,000 over several years as a member of its board of advisers.

We continue to see these massive companies abuse their market power to increase their prices, knowing that their lobbying arms will continue pushing legislation to stop communities from building their own networks.
Time Warner Cable hiked its rates in North Carolina immediately after passing its legislation to stop communities from building networks. Mediacom raised its prices while it attempts to sabotage efforts in rural Minnesota to build networks in unserved areas. And invented new fees to rip off its subscribers while trying to disrupt a rural fiber-to-the-farm initiative that slightly overlapped some territory in which they have long refused to invest.

Even as profits on cable broadband services approach Exxon proportions, Time Warner Cable has pushed for usage-based pricing to further overcharge subscribers, but mostly to strangle enormously popular competitors like Netflix. CenturyLink is not far behind, with usage caps prioritizing its own video content over competitors.

Verizon Wireless tried to sneak a new fee past subscribers by announcing it just before Christmas but backed down after outraged consumers reacted. One has to wonder whether it would have backed down in a world where AT&T took over T-Mobile, resulting in 3 out of 4 wireless customers being with Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Four competitors isn't the robust competition envisioned by Adam Smith, but it still beats the duopoly dynamic that results from even less competition.

Verizon Logo

Speaking of less competition, the recent deal between Verizon and cable companies is troubling. We already knew that FiOS was all but dead, but this deal truly puts a fork in it:

I'll assume that neither cable operators or Verizon are going to let us see the deal fine print to confirm the Times guess, but the logic fits Verizon's strategy. Verizon already cherry picked the most valuable FTTH upgrade markets, and has shown total disinterest in further upgrades. This deal allows them to save money on FTTH upgrade costs, instead soaking up remaining customers with LTE -- which we noted was the plan some time ago. This deal is very bad news to the rural telcos without the cash for large-scale upgrades (CenturyLink, Frontier, Fairpoint, two of which Verizon sold aging DSL networks to), and for satellite broadband providers.

The future of next-generation networks is now only community networks, cooperatives, and some small private networks.

We've long argued that phone and cable companies have systematically overstated their coverage in mapping efforts as part of their effort to blunt any sensible public policy that would result in all Americans having a choice between fast, affordable, and reliable connections to the Internet. The New England disaster called FairPoint is back in the news for overstating the number of subscribers that have access to DSL. The company has not met the requirements it agreed to when purchasing Verizon's lines a few years ago.

Comcast Logo

And in the continuing saga of Comcast's growing domination over the information people can access, Bloomberg TV is fighting Comcast's practice of discriminating against channels in which it has no ownership stake. Comcast has long strongly encouraged those who want to put television channels on its lineup to give Comcast a piece of the action, not unlike a mobster encouraging a small business to pay protection money. It wants to continue expanding its role as a gatekeeper to the Internet, particularly in the many areas where people have no real choice from other high speed providers.

And perhaps the best example of why we should not trust these massive corporations to run essential infrastructure is the revelation that AT&T defunded 9-11 call centers in Tennessee to gain a market advantage over competitors, a practice they were previously caught doing, leading to settlements out of court.

These corporations are not evil, they are following a sensible mandate to maximize their shareholder value. It is our government that is not sensible -- entrusting them with the future of Internet access without even bothering to enact the most basic regulations. Communities must continue to wise up and ensure they have the access they need to modern communications -- access that reponds to their needs, not those of distant shareholders.

Business Week Tackles Anti-Community Broadband Lobbying

Publication Date: 
December 1, 2011
Author(s): 
Alison Fitzgerald
Author(s): 
Brendan Greeley
Publication Title: 
Business Week

Brendan Greeley and Alison Fitzgerald have authored an in-depth exposé of the role the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) played in passing a law in Louisiana designed to cripple community-owned networks ... while falsely claiming the bill was about creating a "level playing field."

This article may not have been possible without the work done by the ALEC Exposed folks at the Center for Media and Democracy.

The aptly-titled "Pssst ... Wanna Buy a Law?" article starts with the background of one of our favorite community broadband champions: Joey Durel, the Republican City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana.

In April of 2004, Lafayette announced their intention to do a market survey to get a sense of whether the community would be interested in a publicly owned FTTH network run by the public utility. By that point, it was not possible to introduce new bills at the Louisiana Legislature. Or at least, that is a technicality when it comes to the lobbying prowess of big cable and telephone companies (mainly Cox and BellSouth - one of the major companies that later became AT&T).

Worried about losing their de facto monopolies, they tapped State Senator Winnsboro to take an existing bill, delete all the words from it and then append their anti-community broadband (anti-competitive) language.

The lobbyist brought back to Lafayette a copy of what would become Senate Bill 877. It named telecommunications as a permitted city utility, then hamstrung municipalities with a list of conditions. It demanded that new projects show positive revenue within the first year. It required a city to calculate and charge itself taxes, as if it were a private company. Cities could not borrow startup costs or secure bonds from any other sources of income. The bill demanded unrealistic accounting arrangements, and it suggested a referendum that would have to pass with an absolute majority. It also, almost word for word, matched a piece of legislation kept in the library of the American Legislative Exchange Council. The council’s bill reads, “The people of the State of _______ do enact as follows … ”

According to Ellington, he substituted the bill after a lobbyist for several of the state’s cable companies approached him, concerned about Lafayette’s project. Ellington’s district did not have plans to run fiber. Nor did any other city or parish in the state. “We were just making sure that the field was level,” he says. “We weren’t trying to keep them from doing what they wanted to do, we just wanted to make sure the public entity couldn’t go in and shortstop the private entities.” Ellington is probably sincere about that. The lobbyist who came to him probably wasn’t. The bill was not designed to level the playing field. It was designed to keep new teams on the sidelines.

The story goes on to track this bill back to Utah in 2001 (when Comcast and US West (later Quest and now CenturyLink) wanted to outlaw communities from building their own networks -- often in areas the private companies had refused to offer access to the Internet anyway). ALEC serves to spread those bills around the nation. When enacting corporate agendas, legislators prefer to get their bills from a nonprofit (ALEC) as opposed from directly from the corporations. Nevermind that the same corporations still write the bills and fund ALEC. It is sufficiently removed for what passes for democracy in America.

LUS Fiber

The bill passed. Lafayette managed to remove some of the ALEC bill’s barriers to entry but, as Huval had predicted, the law embedded into Louisiana code a set of handholds for future litigation. BellSouth and Cox Communications called for a referendum in Lafayette, which the law only suggests. The city’s attorney determined that the petitions to force a referendum did not meet the city’s standards, and BellSouth sued. Lafayette lost on appeal, paid for a referendum, and BellSouth ran ads against approving the project. (According to KLFY, a local television channel, Cox paid for a phone poll that suggested a government-owned provider might ration television on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.) Lafayette tried to issue bonds, and BellSouth challenged them. By 2007, when the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the bond issue, Huval estimates that the city had paid $4 million in legal fees, more than the cost of the original fiber ring. A spokesperson for AT&T, which now owns BellSouth, says the company has backed away from BellSouth’s aggressive approach. But the damage is done. As with Utah, no other city in Louisiana has attempted to follow Lafayette.

According to data provided to Bloomberg Businessweek by the Sunlight Foundation, which posts government information online, state legislators who have signed on to sponsor the ALEC bill limiting municipal telecommunications have tended to receive donations from local cable and phone incumbents, as well as rural telephone associations. The pattern is consistent across states. In North Carolina, where the bill passed in May of this year after four attempts, these companies and groups consistently gave more money to the bill sponsors.

Noble Ellington hasn’t followed what became of his bill. “I just hope we fixed it,” he says, “so private industry and the city and parish were satisfied with what we did.” Terry Huval and Joey Durel both travel around the country now, talking to other small towns about how to get wired. Durel believes it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Huval is working with towns in nearby states but won’t say where. When a plan goes public, he explains, a bill—that bill—is not far behind. ALEC’s model bill on municipal broadband works because the idea of a city providing Internet access is alien to even most lawmakers. If a bill shows up at the right time, in response to one or two cities, it smothers an idea that hasn’t yet gathered many defenders. “I tell people this is not for the faint of heart,” says Huval. “If you don’t have the drive, don’t even start.”

We deeply covered the fight in North Carolina's legislature funded by Time Warner Cable. The bill in North Carolina was carried by ALEC members.

Most of the state laws restricting community broadband initiatives are included on this preemption map.

This is the kind of story that should be forwarded to elected officials. We are likely to see more of these cable and phone company attacks on local freedom next year than we have in any other year since 2005. We need to prepare and educate ourselves.

You can read our previous coverage of Lafayette here.

AT&T's Lobbying Power

A deep thank you to Public Knowledge for their throwing back the curtain on AT&T's lobbying operation in the attempted takeover of T-Mobile.

Whenever the discussion of public v. private arises, the focus is inevitably on the advantages that the public sector supposedly has over the private providers. We have documented these "level playing field" claims and refuted them.

When I recently visited Lafayette, the head of the public utility told me that in fighting the Local Government "Fair" Competition Act in 2005 (meant to prohibit competition against incumbent cable and phone companies) Lafayette hired one lobbyists and the incumbents hired all the rest. In Tennessee, Chattanooga hires one lobbyist to defend itself from many lobbyists -- in October I learned that AT&T has already registered 26 lobbyists for the 2012 session in Tennessee.

Not only do major national companies like AT&T already have most of the advantages in the marketplace, they spend mightily on lobbyists and campaign contributions to make sure it stays that way. One of the reasons I am an enthusiastic supporters of Larry Lessig's Rootstrikers campaign is because the power of big telephone and cable companies likes in their ability to influence policy and elections, not in the quality of their services in the marketplace.

Back to Public Knowledge -- they researched AT&T's push for th T-Mobile merger and found AT&T hired three former US Senators, four former House members, dozens of staffers from both parties, and spent over $40 million in advertising to push its bid to reduce competition in the wireless market.

“This information gives us a more complete picture of the vast lobbying and advertising resources AT&T has dedicated to trying to ram through this takeover,” said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge. “It is even more impressive that while many members of Congress have ignored the facts and are backing this takeover, the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission have not. It is clear that the data the DoJ and FCC have compiled on this deal will negate all of the money AT&T has spent to mislead policymakers and the public.”

How the FCC Killed Broadband Competition

Dane Jasper, the CEO of Sonic.net, one of the few ISPs to survive the death of broadband competition over the past ten years, wrote about "America's Intentional Broadband Duopoly."  It is a short history of how the FCC's flawed analysis (helped along by incredible amounts of lobbying dollars, no doubt).

He starts by asking when the last time anyone offered to sell you broadband over power lines (BPL).  The FCC decided that cable and telephone companies shouldn't have to share their wires (which are a natural monopoly) with competitors (creating an actual marketplace for services) because BPL, satellite, and wireless would put so much competitive pressure on DSL and cable.  FAIL.

Then, in the Brand X decision, they ruled that Cable would not be required to allow competitors to lease their lines either. The FCC did this by reclassifying broadband Internet access as an “information service”, rather than a “telecommunications service”. As a result, common carriage rules could be set aside, allowing for an incumbent Cable monopoly. This decision was challenged all the way to the supreme court, who ruled in 2005 that the FCC had the jurisdiction to make this decision.

To close out Powell’s near-complete dismantling of competitive services in the U.S., the FCC took up the issue of ISPs resale of DSL using the incumbent’s equipment, also known as wholesale “bitstream” access. If Cable is an information service under Brand X, why shouldn’t Telco have the same “regulatory relief”? The result: the FCC granted forbearance (in other words, declined to enforce its rules) from the common carriage requirements for telco DSL services.

For those who are thinking that wireless is finally competitive with cable and DSL, don't forget that while 4G appears much faster (because so few people are using it presently), it still comes with a 2GB monthly cap. So if you want to do something with your connection aside from watching one movie a month, 4G is not competitive with a landline connection.

Senate to Vote on Giving Internet Governance to Comcast, AT&T

Update: The Senate voted against turning the Internet over to Comcast, AT&T, and other major carriers. How did your Senators vote?

The US Senate began debating network neutrality yesterday - the historic governing principle of the Internet that ISPs should not be allowed to tell their users where they may or may not go and should not prioritize some connections over others merely because it generates more revenue for the ISP.

As Al Franken has said several times, this is the 1st amendment for the Internet - protecting everyone's speech. It prevents a few massive companies (or even local governments where they offer access to the Internet) from exerting too much influence over what subscribers are able to do on the Internet.

Unfortunately, many Senators are campaigning against this principle, in part because they have been misinformed as to what it means and in part because they are getting a ton of campaign cash from corporations that recognize how much more profitable they would be if they could charge users extra to go to YouTube.

There will be a vote today on a resolution of disapproval for the mild network neutrality rules proposed by the FCC last December (which the FCC Chairman chose to water down in part because he thought it would be less controversial -- FAIL).

We would like to recognize some of those who have stood up to protect the open Internet, starting with Free Press.

The American Sustainable Business Council authored an op-ed:

The truth is that if we want to make sure small businesses can grow with the assistance of broadband, the Internet must remain open. We must, as the FCC says, “ensure the Internet remains an open platform—one characterized by free markets and free speech—that enables consumer choice, end-user control, competition through low barriers to entry and freedom to innovate without permission.”

Senator Kerry made an impassioned plea for not turning the Internet over to Comcast and AT&T:

So they're trying to say to the American people that they want to liberate the Internet when, in fact, what they want to do is imprison the Internet within the hands of the most powerful communications entities today to act as the gatekeepers who will control the ability of the Internet to do the very kind of development that brought us here.

...

But the reason we have a Google today, the reason we've had this incredible development of Internet retail business, of all of these web sites, of Facebook and so many more is because of the open architecture of access to that Internet. Which, I would remind everybody in America, was created by government money in government research.

...

Everything that goes over the Internet today goes either through your telephone at home or television or whatever, through cable, out of your house or the airwaves. But if we're not having an open architecture on the Internet, then the people who control those access points can start discriminating about who gets access at what speed. And if you control who gets access at what speed and begin to charge more for that, you begin to have a profound impact on the ability of any business to develop and a profound impact on the access that consumers have come to anticipate with respect to the Internet.

Minnesota's own Senator Al Franken gave a great speech in addition to publishing an article about the importance of net neutrality:

This isn't a radical concept - it's what each and every one of us experiences every time we use the Internet. Right now, an e-mail from a friend arrives in your inbox just as quickly and reliably as an advertisement from Amazon.com. Consumers can go online and make a reservation at a small fishing lodge in Ely, Minnesota just as quickly as they can at the Hilton.

But many Republicans want to change that so that the large corporations they represent can increase their profit margins at the expense of small businesses and consumers.

To illustrate why net neutrality is so critical to innovation on the web, I like to tell the story of a small online startup that launched in 2005 above a pizzeria in San Francisco. It had a product that now seems simple: it allowed people to upload videos so others could stream them. It was called YouTube - you may have heard of it.

At the time, Google had a similar product - Google Video - but it wasn't as easy to use, so consumers took their business to YouTube. The site took off and, less than two years after it launched, YouTube was purchased by Google for $1.6 billion. Not a bad payday.

But it wouldn't have been possible without net neutrality. If Google had been able to pay Comcast and other large Internet service providers to prioritize its data - and make YouTube's videos load more slowly - YouTube wouldn't have stood a chance. Google's inferior product would have won.

And some have made the connection between Network Neutrality and Occupy Wall Street:

At Occupy Chicago, communications volunteers count more than 33,000 Facebook "likes," 20,000 Twitter followers, and several thousand website hits every day.

So, some are asking, what would happen if the corporate entities that are the targets of protests were able to limit Internet traffic? That was tried at one point by the Egyptian government during the Arab Spring protests, and Betty Yu with the Center for Media Justice says it's a legitimate concern.

The NY Times editorialized on it:

The resolution would render void the modest rules adopted by the F.C.C. in December 2010. Stripped of authority, the commission would have a very difficult time protecting the Internet from those who clamp down on content for ideological reasons or profit. Repealing the rules would free service providers like phone and cable companies to block or slow down their competitors’ content — be it movies, songs or messages — when it is flowing through their broadband pipes.

...

The Republican approach goes back to 2002, when the F.C.C., under the Bush administration, made the bizarre decision that broadband Internet communications were not, in fact, telecommunication services under the law. Last year, the F.C.C. had the opportunity to redefine broadband as a telecommunications service, which would allow greater regulatory oversight. Regrettably, it chose not to, and instead passed a limited set of rules that did not ban the practice of paying to move content faster and largely exempted wireless broadband services.