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Wally Bowen: Open Wireless is Essential Infrastructure

Once again, we are reprinting an opinion piece by Wally Bowen, founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network based in Asheville, North Carolina. The op-ed was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.

But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.

In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.

Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.

The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.

With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.

But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.

Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.

Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:

* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.

* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.

* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.

These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.

For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.

As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.

Newton, North Carolina Is One Big Hotspot

North Carolina infamously became the 19th state to enact barriers to community broadband, but we wrote about a loophole to it last year - communities can provide services for free without interference from the state capital. And starting last year, Newton, with 12,968 residents, began offering free Wi-Fi among 48 blocks and has plans to expand.

The city leaders were looking for ways to revitalize downtown. Jason Clay, the City IS Director, wanted to provide free outdoor WiFi as a way to get residents out and into the heart of the city.  He had explored the possibility in the past, but the high cost was always a barrier. Initial estimates were between $50,000 and $150,000 to install free Wifi.

Clay put in time researching  the products that would work for their situation. Rather than pay a consultant to do radio frequency and engineering studies, he did the work himself. By shopping directly with Meraki and Ubiquiti, Clay found significant savings. He even enlisted the help of the city's electrical crew and Information Services staff to install the needed devices. Where did they put the equipment? On city poles and water towers. Free WiFi in Newton is truly an initiative fueled by ingenuity, determiniation, and some elbow grease. From Joe DePriest's Charlotte Observer article written when the network went live:

"I knew the equipment was out there and that we had to find out which one fit our needs," Clay said. "So I kept digging and researching, trying to take the mystery out of it. When you take the mystery out of anything, it's usually just a lot of smoke and mirrors anyway. I kept at it. And we came up [with] some pretty cool stuff."

In a September city press release:

“Currently the City has surplus Internet bandwidth so it just makes sense to share it with the citizens,” he [Clay] said. “We do have bandwidth limitations set so the free Wi-Fi cannot interfere with City data traffic.”

In addition to visitors to the city's downtown area, the network is used by city employees to monitor the electric grid and water supply and for public safety purposes. The City plans to expand the use of the network to real time public safety purposes and for employees that are in the field, including GIS, street division work, and public works purposes. Also in the press release:

“The City found it too costly to provide cellular data cards to all of the city’s mobile workers,” Clay related. “By owning the wireless network, the City will have the flexibility of expanding the system, controlling the security, and managing the capacity. Plus, the area’s 3G coverage is spotty and 4G isn’t even here.”

The goal, according to Clay, is to expand the wireless network to all areas in the city limits. Currently, areas served are in the downtown business district, at the City pool, at Jacob Fork Park, and inside City Hall.

Downtown businesses see the value in offering free WiFi. In addition to using the network for commercial purposes, business leaders consider it a boost to the atmosphere and the local economy. In the Observer article:

Mayor Pro Tem Anne Stedman, 54, who runs the Trott House Inn Bed & Breakfast on North Main Avenue, sees the free access as one tool to boost the heart of the town she grew up in. At 13, she delivered The Hickory Daily Record in a thriving downtown, stopping for ice cream or a cherry Coke at H&W Drug. Free wireless alone won't restore the town to its old glory, but Stedman thinks it's a step in the right direction. "Newton has never lost its charm," she said. "This is a way to help put the spirit back."

Big Bucks: Why North Carolina Outlawed Community Networks

Less than a year after North Carolina became the 19th state to create barriers to community networks, effectively outlawing them, the non-partisan organization Follow the Money has crunched the numbers and found that private telecommunications interests donated quite heavily to lawmakers that pushed their bill through the Legislature:

According to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Dialing Up the Dollars: Telecommunication Interests Donated Heavily to NC Lawmakers, Republican lawmakers and those who held key leadership positions, sponsored the bill, and/or who voted in favor of the bill received considerably more campaign contributions from the telecommunication donors than did their colleagues. For example, lawmakers who voted in favor of HB 129 received on average 76 percent more than the average received by those who voted against the bill. The four primary sponsors of the bill received an average of $9,438 each, more than double the $3,658 given on average to lawmakers who did not sponsor the bill.

Recall that Time Warner Cable pushed this bill for years with some help from AT&T, CenturyLink, and others that stood to benefit by limiting broadband competition. But the Legislature wisely refused to enact it... until 2011.

Now we have a better sense of what may have shifted the balance. Consider this:

Thom Tillis

Thom Tillis, who became speaker of the house in 2011, received $37,000 in 2010–2011 (despite running unopposed in 2010), which is more than any other lawmaker and significantly more than the $4,250 he received 2006–2008 combined. AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 in early-mid January, just before he was sworn in as speaker on January 26. Tillis voted for the bill, and was in a key position to ensure it moved along the legislative pipeline.

Running unopposed for office, he collected more money from the cable and phone companies than any other Representative and almost 10 times as much as in the previous two cycle combined. As Speaker, he set the agenda and decided priorities. At a time when communities need as many broadband options as possible, he pushed a bill to limit competition.

It does not prove corruption, but in the immortal lyrics of C&C Music Factory, it "makes you go, hmmmm."

Senator Apodaca, one of the lead supporters of the bill in the Senate, received $21,000 from telecom political action committiees. Only one other Senator came close to that total -- Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger. Most Senators collected well under $10,000.

How did others in leadership positions do?

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger received $19,500, also a bump from the $13,500 he received in 2008 and the $15,250 in 2006. He voted for the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown received $9,000, significantly more than the $2,750 he received in 2006 and 2008 combined. Brown voted in favor of the bill.

Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt, who voted for the bill, received $8,250 from telecommunication donors; Nesbitt had received no contributions from telecommunication donors in earlier elections.

Oppose HB 129

None of this data suggests quid pro quo corruption. We are not saying that these people only supported this bill because they got thousands upon thousands of dollars from those who wanted it passed.

Nonetheless, the Legislature decided to prioritize a bill to revoke local decision-making authority from communities to make them more dependent on a small number of cable and DSL companies that just happened to give tens of thousands of dollars to key lawmakers.

Hmmmmm.

No use crying about it now. The question is where we go from here. Time to hold their feet to the fire -- after the bill passed, CenturyLink claimed "Thanks to the passage of House Bill 129, CenturyLink has gained added confidence to invest in North Carolina and grow our business in the state."

Can anyone attest to CenturyLink increasing investment in North Carolina? Almost certainly not. AT&T has admitted it won't continue the U-Verse rollout it once promised state legislators.

Let's collect the stories of people denied fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet due to laws limiting local authority. Always feel free to share such stories with us.

North Carolina County Turns on First White Spaces Wireless Network in Nation

A local government in southeast North Carolina is the first entity to deploy a "Super Wi-Fi" white-spaces broadband network. New Hanover County, North Carolina, owns the network that was developed by Spectrum Bridge.

New Hanover County and The City of Wilmington do not plan to charge people to use the WiFi capability made possible by the new network. As long as the service is free neither they nor other municipalities deploying the technology are likely to run afoul of anti-municipal network legislation that has been adopted in some areas.

Recall that North Carolina passed a law last year to limit local authority to build networks that could threaten Time Warner Cable or CenturyLink's divine right to be the only service providers in the state (even as they refuse to invest in modern networks).

These white spaces are sometimes called "Super Wi-Fi" because the public knows that Wi-Fi is wireless and therefore anyone can quickly grasp that "Super Wi-Fi" is newer, better, and perhaps even wireless(er).

GovTech also covered the announcement:

According to the FCC, these vacant airwaves between channels are ideal for supporting wireless mobile devices. The FCC named the network “super Wi-Fi” because white spaces are lower frequency than regular Wi-Fi and, therefore, can travel longer distances.

New Hanover County is deploying the super Wi-Fi in three public parks, starting with a playground area at Hugh MacRae Park on Jan. 26, followed by Veterans Park and Airlie Gardens. Other locations in Wilmington, N.C. — located in the county — will also have access to the new network.

Apparently the newsiness of this story derives from its official launch - MuniWireless covered many of the details about this network in early 2010:

Muni Wireless Logo

According to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, the city has a fiber network to support municipal applications, and they are now using wireless technology (over the TV white spaces) where they cannot deploy fiber, for example, in environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands where they want to monitor water quality in real time. The city is also using the wireless network for Department of Transportation cameras which monitor a parkway (where there is a drawbridge) for traffic accidents and heavy traffic flows. With wireless cameras streaming live video to DOT offices, they can send emergency vehicles and adjust the timing of the traffic signals to manage the flow of vehicles.

The benefits of the network appear to mainly center on more efficient government:

Another application is the ability of the city to turn off the lights in sports fields (ball park, soccer field) shortly after a match. They have installed wireless cameras to see if people are still using the ball park and if not, they turn off the lights remotely (for example, an employee can do this from his home). In the past, the lights would remain on even hours after a match is over. The city expects to save $800,000 per year in energy costs alone.

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.

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.

Salisbury's Fibrant Hits 1600 Subscribers

The muni FTTH network owned by the city of Salisbury, North Carolina, is finishing the calendar year with over 1600 subscribers. The network just began signing up customers 13 months ago.

“We already said in the first four years, we would not break even,” City Councilman Brian Miller said. “That’s not a surprise to anyone.”

According to documents, the city expects Fibrant to become cash-flow positive after four years. The city billed the first Fibrant customers one year ago in December 2010.

The city expects Fibrant to eliminate its deficit as more people sign up and revenues increase. The utility, which competes with private providers like Time Warner Cable, has a 13 percent market share, interim City Manager Doug Paris said, and is billing about $200,000 a month.

“We’re growing in what is an extremely tough market,” Paris said.

Paris said after the meeting Fibrant has about 1,600 customers. The utility needs about 4,500 to become cash-flow positive.

Salisbury has a new mayor coming into office, but he is a supporter of the network, as was the outgoing mayor, who spent a significant amount of time defending the community network from Time Warner Cable's attacks via the state legislature.

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.

Local, Nonprofit Broadband Infrastructure Essential for Sustainability

Wally Bowen, of North Carolina's Mountain Area Information Network, recently gave an excellent presentation that explained the importance of broadband and media infrastructure that puts community needs before the profit motive.

In 1889, Statesville, N.C., opted for self-reliance by building its own municipal power system after failing to attract an investor-owned utility. Half a century later, said Bowen, most American farms still lacked electricity, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help finance nonprofit rural electric cooperatives.

In the 1980s, Morganton, N.C. opted for self-reliance by expanding its municipal power system to offer cable TV, after years of complaints – including the 1982 blackout of the UNC-Georgetown national championship game – about its commercial cable provider.

Bowen cautioned that corporate interests often oppose local communities which “self provision” critical infrastructure. Morganton’s commercial cable-TV provider sued the city to block its cable venture. Only in 1993, after a decade-long legal battle, did Morganton win the right to self-provision cable TV. Today, Morganton’s municipal cable system offers broadband Internet access at competitive rates and with no contract.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina Legislature has made it much harder for local governments to build the necessary networks (as a favor to Time Warner Cable, which just happened to have given massively to many of the candidates). But Wally has an answer -- nonprofit approaches that have been inspired by rural electric cooperatives.

MAIN is making important investments in western North Carolina and should be recognized as making a difference in a region the private sector has largely abandoned.

NC Labeled a "Tech Turkey" For Bill Killing Community Broadband

In a nod to Thanksgiving, Government Technology has collected 11 "Tech Turkeys - "Half-baked lowlights from the year gone by" (2011).

North Carolina made the list at Number 9 after its Time Warner Cable-sponsored Legislature decided to effectively outlaw community fiber networks. This might not have been as big a deal if those communities were not the only entities in the state actually investing in next-generation broadband. Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink prefer to "save the best for last" when it comes to investing in the state.

The stated reason for revoking local decision-making power from communities? It wasn't fair for Time Warner Cable to compete against cities like Salisbury. We looked deeper into that claim and found it wanting, as illustrated below in an infographic and video:

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Video: 
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