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Colorado Broadband Bill Seeks Access Answers

For tourists and residents alike, much of Colorado is one amazing vista after the next. I nearly circumnavigated it on a recent trip and was re-blown away at how incrediblely beautiful it is (recommendation: stop by Great Sand Dunes National Park).

But those incredible mountains are a two-way street. The same ridges that make it great ski country make it awful wireless country. All those mountains make it hard to provide ubiquitous wireless access - leave the interstate or urban areas behind and you are lucky to see the old "1x" show up on your smartphone.

When I go on vacation, I like to remain connected to find weather reports, directions to my next destination, local cafes, etc. And like just about everyone, I really like to be connected where I live. The private telecom sector gets a failing grade for serving both residents and vacationers.

Don't forget that Colorado is one of the nineteen states that have barriers to publicly owned networks despite the refusal of cable and DSL companies to build next-generation networks. We've frequently written about Longmont's efforts to improve its broadband access despite that legislation.

Senate Bill 12-129 aims to identify areas of the state lacking sufficient acess to the Internet and seeking solutions. A local newspaper reported on testimony from local businesses suffering from the lack of investment:

Wendell Pryor, director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corp., testified to the impacts of limited bandwidth on businesses in that area.

Princeton Hot Springs Resort, an economic driver that generates the second-highest amount of sales tax among businesses in Chaffee County, is unable to process credit cards electronically when bandwidth traffic is high.

"The broadband is simply not sufficient to allow them to do that, so it's done manually," Pryor said.

He said Monarch Ski Resort, which anchors the winter tourist season in Chaffee County, asks the staff to shut off their computers in order to have adequate broadband availability for skiers and customers.

Meanwhile, it appears that CenturyLink and other providers are trying to water down the bill. As we have seen elsewhere, the big DSL companies want to define broadband at ludicrously low speeds to hide the fact that they are crippling local businesses by refusing to provide modern services.

Government Technology offers a deeper explanation of the bill, along with my thought that this bill is better than what most states are doing because most states are either doing nothing or narrowing the options for communities by creating barriers to community networks.

An original goal of the bill was to identify both those areas lacking in broadband access as defined by the FCC and those areas lacking in competitive access to such broadband (probably the vast majority of the state). But the competition aspect was dropped in committee - probably a friendly gesture to CenturyLink and others who pretend broadband has a lot of competition but hasten to stop anyone from actually examining it.

Colorado Mountains, courtesy of Hogs555

If the bill passes in current form, it would also develop an inventory of state-owned broadband assets -- something every state should probably develop.

This bill does not address public ownership or community networks but the discussions around it are relevant. Even though big corporations like CenturyLink try to cast publicly owned networks as a public v. private affair, the article reminds us that this issue is really everyone v. a few very big cable and DSL companies:

Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), which represents county interests in the state, supports SB 12-129. Andy Karsian, the organization’s legislative coordinator, said various rural counties have had opportunities to attract employers, but they couldn’t seal the deal -- primarily due to a lack of high-speed connectivity those potential businesses require.

If CenturyLink were meeting local needs and allowing local businesses to thrive, communities would not be examining their capacity to build their own networks.

My greatest fear with the Colorado bill is that we will get another Advisory Panel or Task Force or some official body that will get nothing done because representatives of CenturyLink or Comcast or other big companies that benefit from the status quo will deadlock it. As I told GovTech,

“Unfortunately these advisory panels often end up stacked with representatives from DSL and cable companies that prefer the status quo until they can devise a scheme for the public to funnel more subsidies their way,” Mitchell said. “I hope that will not be the case in Colorado.”

Photo of Colorado's incredible mountains used under creative commons license, courtesy of Hogs555.

AT&T Trying to Redefine Broadband in Georgia, South Carolina

The absurdity of AT&T's push to define broadband as 200kbps is so great, it boggles the imagination. We developed the graphic below to highlight just how slow 200kbps connections are.

200kbps is not good enough for communities

Feel free to spread it around. Higher quality pdf below.

South Carolina Cable Association Also Wants to Limit Competition

Many complain about gridlock in Washington, DC, but I sometimes subscribe to the cynical counter-reaction that gridlock is great. It is when the Democrats and Republicans agree that Americans should beware.

Though this may or may not be true about politics, it is certainly true when applied to two of the most hated industries in America: cable television companies and DSL companies like AT&T. When they come to agreement, you can bet that prices are going up for the rest of us.

In our coverage of AT&T's bid to limit broadband competition in South Carolina by revoking local authority to build networks for economic development, we have thus far ignored the position of the cable companies.

We took a tour through the newsletters of the South Carolina Cable Television Association over the course of 2011, which is when AT&T introduced its H.3508 bill.

Unsurprisingly, the cable companies are thrilled at the prospect of limiting competition in communities by cutting off the ability of a community to build a network when the private sector is failing to meet their needs. From the 1st Quarter newsletter [pdf]:

The SCCTA has been actively following the AT&T-backed legislation that would amend the Government-Owned Telecommunications Service Providers Act. House Bill 3508 would impose the same requirements on government-owned broadband operations that are currently imposed on telecommunications operations.

Of course, H.3508 goes far beyond applying the "same requirements." It enacts a host of requirements that only apply to public providers, which are already disadvantaged by being much smaller than companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T. We have long ago debunked the myth of public sector advantages over the private sector.

The second quarter newsletter [pdf] identifies this bill as the highest priority of the cable association:

H3508, the AT&T backed legislation, has been our dominate piece of legislation in 2011.

Even after the bill was shelved for the year, it remained a high priority for the cable lobbyists (who, of course, need something to do while shmoozing at the capitol day in and day out) according to the 3rd quarter newsletter [pdf]:

The SC Cable Television Association will continue to work to move H3508...

And finally, in the 4th quarter [pdf], we get a sense that all that lobbying has been successful:

When session ended last year, the bill was in Senate Judiciary subcommittee (Sen. Luke Rankin – Chair, Sen. Brad Hutto & Sen. Paul Campbell). Our team of lobbyists have been working very hard meeting with members of the full Senate Judiciary Committee to move this important industry bill forward. As of writing this column, we expect new amendments dealing with Clemson’s Light Rail initiative and Orangeburg County. Our team has been assured the two counties who received the broadband stimulus funds, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, will NOT provide service in areas that is capable of receiving other broadband services. This bill is to be heard before full Senate Judiciary and will then head to the Senate floor.

Democracy in action! We know that the private sector will not create competition by itself. In fact, the future will be less competitive as cable systems generally provide faster connections than DSL and wireless, which will compete for those who don't mind slowly surfing.

South Carolina's businesses that want to thrive in the digital economy might consider looking at the nearby job-creator-friendly broadband networks in Brisol, Virginia; Danville, Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Salisbury, North Carolina; and Wilson, North Carolina. Those communities have the fastest connections in the US at the most affordable prices.

Washington Legislation to Spur Rural Broadband Killed in Committee

Lobbyists for major cable and DSL companies (Comcast, Frontier, and others) already earned their pay in Washington state this year by killing a bill that would have allowed some public utility districts to offer retail services on broadband networks in rural areas that were unserved.

Unfortunately, the powerful incumbent cable and DSL companies have been able to kill bills like this in committee year after year even as they refuse to build the necessary networks throughout the state. Comcast is not about to start offering broadband in these low-density areas, but it also does not want to allow public utilities to embarrass them by offering faster connections at lower prices than Comcast offers in Seattle (where it faces no real competition).

Public Utility Districts can currently only offer wholesale services -- meaning that they can only offer services by using private service providers in an open access arrangements. We are strong supporters of this approach where it works. However, in high-cost rural areas, the "middle man" kills the economics. There is not enough revenue to pay for the network.

Some of the public utility districts want the authority to offer retail services in order to bring high-speed connections to these rural areas and encourage economic development. Big companies like Frontier and CenturyLink serve some of the people in some of these areas -- often with significant state and federal subsidies. We could phase out such subsidies by encouraging approaches that are not as massively inefficient as Frontier and CenturyLink -- two of the worst DSL providers in the nation. Unfortunately, what they lack in capacity to invest in modern broadband, they make up for in lobbying prowess.

An article in the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle offers some more background:

Erik Poulsen, government relations director at Washington Public Utility District Association, said PUDs have used the wholesale authority they were granted in 2000, building 4,500 miles of fiber-optic cable, investing $300 million in infrastructure and joining with 150 retail providers. He said such wholesaling isn’t possible in certain parts of the state.

“The idea was that PUDs would build critical infrastructure and private companies would come in and provide direct service,” Poulsen said. “This wholesale arrangement serves many of our PUDs well. Others believe they need expanded authority to overcome some of the barriers that still exist.”

Because the bill was not voted out of Committee by Jan 31, it is effectively dead. Way to go Comcast and other big companies, you have yet again delayed the expansion of broadband in rural areas to benefit your shareholders.

In fairness to those lobbying against expanding broadband to rural communities, it was not solely the big incumbents. Some of the smaller ISPs that operate on the existing PUD networks were also opposed to allowing greater local authority in determining the best business model for building networks because they feared for their own livelihood.

Until rural communities actually begin paying attention to these state-by-state broadband battles, the narrow interests of a few will win every battle because they show up and they make campaign contributions. We could at least start showing up...

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Listen to AT&T's CEO, not Lobbyists

AT&T lobbyists in Georgia and South Carolina are arguing that local governments should not be allowed to build the networks that communities need, suggesting that the private sector is primed to make the necessary connections. But AT&T's CEO had a different message for investors a few weeks ago, in an earnings call on January 26:

The other is rural access lines; we have been apprehensive on moving, doing anything on rural access lines because the issue here is, do you have a broadband product for rural America?

We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE.

Whoa! LTE is what you more commonly hear called 4G in mobile phone commercials. The best they can do is eventually build a wireless network that allows a user to transfer just 2GB/month. That is fine for hand-held devices but it does nothing to encourage economic development or allow residents to take advantage of remote education opportunities.

But even the CEO admits they are not bullish on LTE as the solution:

[W]e’re looking at rural America and asking, what’s the broadband solution? We don’t have one right now.

Some may be wondering about "U-Verse" -- AT&T's super DSL that competes with cable in the wealthy neighborhoods of bigger cities. U-Verse cannot match the capacity or quality of modern cable networks but is better than older DSL technologies. But U-Verse is not coming to a rural community near you.

For those who missed the fanfare last year, AT&T's U-Verse build is done. AT&T's lobbyists have probably forgotten to tell Georgia and South Carolina Legislators that the over 20 million AT&T customers without access to U-Verse are not going to get it. But CEO Stephenson made sure investors weren't worried about AT&T continuing to invest in its wireline infrastructure:

In wireline, our U-verse build is now largely complete, so we have in place an IP video and broadband platform that reaches 30 million customer locations, which gives us significant headroom now to drive penetration.

Translation: AT&T will now focus on upselling customers in markets with U-Verse. If it doesn't run through your neighborhood already, you aren't getting it.

The rest are stuck on dial-up or DSL that AT&T's CEO has previously called obsolete (correctly). While AT&T's CEO has been honest about its inability to solve real broadband deployment gaps, AT&T's lobbyists have tried to advance a bill with the ludicrously low broadband definition of 200kbps and even more absurdly, the even slower definition of 190kbps.

The business model of AT&T and other big cable and DSL companies simply does not work in much of rural America. The question is why any state would foreclose the possibility of communities being self-reliant when major companies like AT&T candidly admit they have no solution and the best they can do is deliver an obsolete product.

State legislators need to pay more attention to what AT&T's CEO says and less what AT&T's lobbyists say.

Fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet is essential for communities to thrive in the digital age. Not every community wants to build a community networks and most undoubtdly won't. But that is decision they should make locally. Pending legislation in Georgia and South Carolina would take this decision out of the hands of these communities by enacting a host of new regulations on public networks that do not apply to the private sector. As in North Carolina, these bills effectively revoke local decision-making authority by creating impossible hurdles for communities that are already disadvantaged in the modern economy.

Rural Wisconsin Residents Struggle to Connect to the Internet

A group of rural residents living east of Madison, Wisconsin, gathered near Portage of Columbia County to discuss their lack of affordable high speed access to the Internet. These are people for whom slow, overpriced DSL would be an improvement.

Lack of access to the Internet is a drain on rural economies -- their real estate market suffer and they are unable to telecommute, when they would benefit more from it than most who do have the option. They lack access to long-distance education opportunities in a time when the cost of gas makes driving to school prohibitively expensive.

Andy Lewis, who has been working with the Building Community Capacity through Broadband Project with U-W Extension, was on hand to discuss some of the lessons learned through their work, which is largely funded by a broadband stimulus award.

The incumbent providers encouraged residents without access to aggregate their demand and create petitions to demonstrate the available demand. Of course they did. And if CenturyLink decides it can get a sufficient return on its slow and unreliable DSL, they will build it out to some of those unserved areas. This is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario for rural residents. DSL was starting to be obsolete years ago.

The better solution is finding nearby cooperatives and munis that will extend next-generation networks that can provide fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Getting a DSL to a town will do very little to attract residents and nothing to attract businesses. It is a 20th century technology in a rapidly evolving 21st century world.

The Beaver Dam Daily Citizen covered the meeting, which eventually turned away from how to beg for broadband to how they can build it themselves:

But several attendees asked why the government can't play a role in making high-speed service available everywhere, in the same way that the government helped bring about rural electrification and telephone service.

This is a very good question. They may decide not to follow that path, but given the importance of access to the Internet, they should look at options for building a network that puts community needs first. North of Madison, Reedsburg has built an impressive FTTH network and we have been tracking progress of the Fiber-to-the-Farm effort in Minnesota's Sibley County.

Unfortunately, AT&T's incredible influence in the state capital has made it more difficult for communities to build the networks they need -- even in places like Columbia County where AT&T is not and will not connect rural residents. Such is the price of living under governments that make policy based on the interests of powerful special interests.

There was a time when the ideology of self-reliance was considered American and even conservative. But now the idea of self-reliance is largely abandoned as communities first seek to beg distant corporations (with a history of royally ripping them off) to connect them and only consider solving their own problems with local investments as a last-ditch effort, which could be too controversial.

Update: This meeting was hosted by the Public Service Commission as part of a larger effort to create a state broadband plan. Such processes are typically dominated by interests of incumbent providers -- a model that was emphatically rejected by the FDR Administration when developing its plan for electrification. Electrification was wildly successful; expanding broadband by begging incumbents has been a dismal failure.

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.