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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 10

If the 3 million public comments, the backing of the FCC Chairman, and the support of big tech companies all over the United States wasn't enough, this week we heard more positive rumblings about Network Neutrality, this time from President Obama.

"My appointee, [FCC Chairman] Tom Wheeler, knows my position. I can't now, that he's there, I can't just call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I've been clear about, what the White House has been clear about is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we're not creating two or three or four tiers of Internet. 

Of course, whatever the FCC decides, someone will be taking the commission to court. Edward Wyatt of the New York Times sat through 24 hours of discussions this week and concluded, along with other scholars: "Litigation is probably inevitable."

Muni Networks

This week, our own Chris Mitchell traveled to Washington's Mount Vernon for an event highlighting how their municipal fiber network has improved the business climate [pdf]. While in the area, he spoke at two forums in Seattle about municipal fiber networks. The Stranger’s Ansel Herz is skeptical of the city’s glacial pace for change in terms of connectivity. He and Taylor Soper with GeekWire were among those covering the community events:

Seattle may never see better, more affordable connection speeds unless some serious changes happen.

That was the message from Chris MItchell, the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, who spoke on Wednesday evening at City Hall to a group of 50 that came to hear how Seattle could offer more Internet options — including a publicly-funded municipal broadband service, similar to what’s already available in Washington cities like Tacoma and Mount Vernon.

Another Tennessee Republican is questioning the Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s ten+ million dollar elephant-in-the-room. William Neilson Jr. targets Blackburn’s recent Op-Ed this week.

She wants the government to stay out of her state while she (part of the terrible government) tries putting into place her own rules which do nothing other than eliminate parts of the state from competitive broadband.

Here is an idea: If you want the government to stay out of your business, stop allowing businesses to bribe politicians which in turn gets state/local governments to put in place rules that only help a select few, rather than the public. You can’t hate government involvement yet want that same government involvement to help your side thanks to a few thousand dollars in donations.

Meantime, the FCC has a lot of reading to do, and that’s just of the 230+ comments filed in the proceedings that would allow Chattanooga’s EPB to expand its Gig Network outside its current service area. 

And for this week’s Good Question (take note, WCCO’s Heather Brown!) How Come My ISP Won’t Increase Internet Speed and Lower My Bill, Like they Do in Sweden?” asks Motley Fool’s Anders Bylund. 

This last-mile infrastructure and the connecting fiber loops are accessible to a variety of telecoms, cable service providers, and Internet specialists. All of them have equal access to the consumer-facing and core networks, on "equal and non-discriminatory terms… The American model is powered by private, for-profit organizations. On the next level down, consumers are facing a Balkanized patchwork of cable, fiber, and DSL services with minimal competition and zero infrastructure sharing. Flooding or overriding this system with government support would be politically impossible, so we're stuck with this framework. That means focusing on profits over service quality, and there is no incentive at all to lower the cost to consumers.

I mean, it’s no “Why do trees change different colors in the fall.” but it certainly strikes us as a question the media should pursue. 

Astroturf

This week, the Boy Genius Report found a video from “NetCompetition,” a non-profit that claims to promote competition for Internet services, but is actually a front for the telco and cable companies.

“People think that you can compete with the government?” Cleland asks incredulously. “You can’t beat City Hall!”

Cleland asks us to simultaneously believe that these municipal networks are total failures and that City Hall is so all-powerful that it will run cable and telephone companies (that are orders of magnitude larger) out of business. BGR offers a smarter take:

If some municipal broadband projects are successes and some of them are failures, doesn’t it make more sense to study them all to see what works and what doesn’t before writing the entire concept off all together? And even if some municipalities do waste a lot of money on broadband projects that go nowhere, isn’t that their right? Aren’t state and local governments the real “laboratories of democracy,” as some like to say?

Cleland has also argued that the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is pro-competitive. 

Another so-called citizen group is trying rather unsuccessfully to rally their troops against net neutrality this week. Jason Koebler of Motherboard and Joan McCarter with the Daily Kos say “American Commitment” a group run by conservative strategist Phil Kerpen, found 808,363 people in the US to support paid prioritization of the Internet. And all he had to do was lie to them!

Email blasts were sent to hundreds of thousands of people with subject lines that had nothing to do with net neutrality, such as "Only Days to Stop Obama's Takeover."

In the emails themselves, Kerpen called net neutrality "marxist," suggested that maintaining net neutrality would "erase your internet freedoms, upend your right to privacy, censor the content you view on Internet, seize control of e-commerce, keep records of the sites you visit and when, track what you read and for how long and so much more!" 

And, let’s not forget Americans for Prosperity. Kuper Jones chimed in with a few scare tactics of his own on The Hill this week. 

“..municipal networks across the country have had an abysmal track record at best. They’ve left citizens with tremendous amounts of debt and greater tax burdens. Taxpayers in Lafayette, Louisiana as well as eleven cities in Utah can attest to this as they’ve been saddled with $160 million and $500 million in debt, respectively, thanks to broadband boondoggles.”

We would hardly call 1,300 well-paying positions, better connectivity, and competitive pricing a boondoggle, but again, maybe there are multiple definitions of the word out there somewhere we're not aware of. 

UTOPIA at a Crossroads: Part 1

This is the first of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward.

At the end of a month of public meetings, hearings, and city council votes, just over half of the cities that make up UTOPIA have chosen to take the next step in their negotiations with the Macquarie Group. The massive Australian investment bank has put forward an offer to become a partner in the troubled network in exchange for a $300 million capital infusion to finish the long-stalled FTTH buildout.

Of the 11 member cities that have debt obligations for the network, six (comprising about 60% of all 163,000 addresses in the UTOPIA area) have voted to proceed to “Milestone 2,” which means digging into details and starting serious negotiations on the terms of a potential public-private partnership. Macquarie outlined their opening proposal in their Milestone 1 report in April.

Macquarie has about $145 billion in assets globally, and is no stranger to large scale infrastructure projects. Their Infrastructure and Real Assets division has stakes in Mexican real estate, Taiwanese broadband networks, Kenyan wind power, and a New Jersey toll bridge, to name just a few. For their UTOPIA investment, they would be working with Alcatel Lucent and Fujitsu, highly capable international IT companies. So there’s some serious corporate firepower across the negotiating table from the UTOPIA cities - and in this case, that’s not actually a bad thing.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA has an excellent overview of the whole messy history of UTOPIA and the limited options the network’s member cities now face. While the network offers true competition, low prices, and gigabit speeds through an open access FTTH network, UTOPIA has faced a slew of setbacks over the years, from incumbent lawsuits and astroturf activism to mismanagement, poor expansion planning, loan disputes, and restrictive state laws. As a result, the network remains unfinished, with just over 60,000 of 163,000 addresses having been passed by fiber, while member cities are on the hook for about $500 million in long term debt and interest payments to go with annual operating losses in the realm of $2.4 million.

The UTOPIA cities have some choices to make. They could simply shut the network down, eliminating the operating costs - but also depriving the area of its best chance at ubiquitous and affordable high speed internet access, losing the revenue from current customers, and doing nothing about the long term debt. This would essentially guarantee that the cities would continue to make bond payments for the next 30 years while receiving nothing. It would also leave the many local businesses  that depend on the network’s reliable speed high and dry.

Or the cities could choose to sell the network, as nearby Provo did with its fiber network after state restrictions requiring an infeasible business model took their toll. Any proceeds from a UTOPIA sale would be dwarfed by the outstanding bonds, however, leaving the cities with most of the debt left to pay and little to show for it, handing over control of a local infrastructure asset to the highest bidder. This did not work out especially well in Provo, where the public sector held onto the network’s debt while a private provider (Broadweave) struggled to operate it. They have had better luck with a subsequent sale to Google, but still retain the public debt without community ownership. This is a fate UTOPIA cities should avoid if at all possible.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series. In Part 2, we’ll break down the main points of the preliminary Macquarie proposal. In Part 3 we’ll weigh the pros and cons, showing why this deal has the potential to make the best of a difficult situation for UTOPIA-area residents and businesses.

Longmont Friends of Fiber Rallies Supporters, Preps for Referendum Fight

Longmont's City Council and municipal power and communications utility are getting serious about bringing fiber to the people. We reported earlier this month about the decision to allow voters to decide how fast they want that next generation network. Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) already plan to expand the existing network to households and businesses but face a long, slow time table over many years if they expand incrementally without bonding. The City Council will ask voters if they will authorize a $44 million bond issue to pay for capital costs, interest and debt-service reserve.

Many in Longmont recall the ferocious opposition they faced during the two previous referendums. The cable industry (mostly Comcast) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during each campaign, saturating citizens with a deceitful advertising campaign.

Once again, local citizens are forming their own group to support the measure. A Scott Rochat Longmont Times-Call article reports that the group, Friends of Fiber, recently met in Longmont's TinkerMill "hackserspace" to plan initial strategy. The main take-away for participants was "we need more people."

The group does not want to be taken by surprise by the same astroturf groups that spent $250,000 dollars to defeat the referendum question in 2009. While a second referendum passed in 2011 despite even more astroturf spending, Friends of Fiber are taking no chances and mobilizing now. Both of those referenda dealt with the authority to operate the network, not finance an expansion.

From the article:

[Organizer Scott] Converse said the group had to be ready for just as big a fight now. One tactic will be borrowed from the national political campaigns; creating software that will scan the Internet for negative references to the bond issue so that the group can respond quickly.

Vince Jordan, LPC Telecom Manager, note that the utility has updated the original service offering from $59.95 for 25 Mbps to $49.95 for residential 1 gig service. From the meeting:

"I'll be a guinea pig," one man in the crowd said to chuckles as he asked to be connected. "I'll dig the trench if you'll let me."

Coin-Operated Hypocrisy In Action: A Case Study in Monticello

Rant Warning...

Every state has at least one organization, often calling itself a think tank, that is funded by large corporations to advance their narrow interests, often at the expense of local businesses and the larger public.

Many call these "coin operated" think tanks because they take whatever positions their funders want them to take. Or, a more charitable explanation is that some massive corporations are simply channeling money to those few people who honestly believe that we would all be better off if BP or Comcast or Goldman Sachs had no regulations to worry about.

In Minnesota, one of these is called the "Freedom Foundation" of Minnesota. I tend to ignore them for a variety of reasons.

  1. There just isn't enough time.
  2. They are really, really ignorant. Their papers and posts are so filled with errors in basic fact, it would take a LOT of time to correct them - which brings me back to point 1. (Nonetheless, they are influential because the lobbyists of the companies that fund them distribute their propaganda throughout the capitol that they appear to actually live in.)
  3. Mentioning them can legitimize them.

So here I am, mentioning this group because I just noted a curious example of their utter lack of integrity.

For a few years, the "Freedom Foundation" has worked on telecommunications issues, mostly writing nasty, slanted articles twisting the words of public officials to discredit projects. Given the problems faced by Monticello (as we have covered), they have had a field day there - even tracking down a bondholder that is losing part of his investment.

The fallout from Monticello FiberNet will cost bondholders something like $19 million or about 65 percent of their investment. And the City will likely spend millions in public dollars on the network when it was originally to be paid for entirely by the revenue bonds. This is certainly disappointing. But in Monticello, FiberNet is not the only difficulty - Monticello happens to host one of Xcel Energy's nuclear power plants.

Cost overruns there are taking a $320 million project and turning it into a $640 million project, which will be paid for by ratepayers across Minnesota, including myself.

Yikes, right? I mean if the "Freedom Foundation" is incensed at how unjust it is for Monticello citizens to have to pay for a project they overwhelmingly supported in a public referendum, they must be apopletic about yet another cost overun for a nuclear power plant in the hundreds of millions!

Good luck finding any evidence of that. Maybe they are soooooo furious, they just cannot write about it. Or, more likely, their goal for "freedom" is simply the maximize the freedom of a few big corporations to rip us off because that is how they earn their paycheck. When it comes to Xcel, they seem to only find time to criticize how ratepayer money is spent when it goes to groups they don't like.

Don't worry friends, we'll almost certainly hear back from the "Freedom Foundation" if ratepayers have to spend an extra $.02 on wind turbines.

At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we discuss community owned networks honestly. It is a hard business and we have been frank about those communities that have struggled. It is a matter of intellectual honesty - good luck finding any from our loudest and most well-funded opponents.

Bonus Update: Here is another question - where are these supposed defenders of taxpayers when Wall Street is found to be ripping them off? Nowhere. They don't care about how much taxpayers pay, they care about unlimited corporate power for a few.

Kentucky Preserves Basic Telephone Protections Despite AT&T Predation

Earlier this year we reported on SB 88 in the Kentucky legislature. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback and authored by AT&T, would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement and reduced consumer protections. A similar bill in 2011 was also defeated by a coalition of public interest groups.

This is one of a series of bills crafted by AT&T and ALEC that has been explained in great depth by the National Regulatory Research Institute in their 2012 review [pdf] as well as by Bruce Kushnick in this report [pdf].

Advocates on the side of consumers, including ILSR, were happy to see the bill defeated in the House. Though AT&T will undoubtedly be back again in future years, this victory shows the massive corporate carriers are vulnerable. In addition to blocking harmful deregulation, this is an example of how an organized coalition can protect the public interest.

I spoke with Mimi Pickering, Director of the Appalshop Community Media Initiative in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She described how local groups defeated the bill with the facts. Appalshop teamed up with nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council (KRC), AARP Kentucky, the AFL-CIO, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and several other groups. The coalition explained the complexities of the proposal and spelled out what could happen to landline service without consumer protections.

Appalshop Logo

KRC is an environmental advocacy group that helped stop SB 88 by providing critical research to educate the public and lawmakers. In Episode #44 of our podcast, Pickering and KRC Director Tom FitzGerald describe the coalition's work. KRC put the bill on its "Ugly" list early in the session and Fitzgerald dedicated significant time to analyzing the bill and spreading the word about its pitfalls. 

In a January Kentucky.com opinion piece, Fitzgerald described in detail how passage of the bill would affect households directly and indirectly. Pickering says his ability to translate legislative jargon was critical to the victory. By spelling out the likely outcomes for legislators and citizen groups, KRC and FitzGerald gave lawmakers the facts they needed to make informed decisions.

AT&T relied on a campaign of fear and misinformation. In contrast with FitzGerald's analytical opinion piece, AT&T Kentucky's President Mary Pat Regan penned a fluff piece about SB 88. She claimed the proposal would encourage competition and that residents already had abundant choice. Kentuckians, especially those in rural communities, knew better. Throughout, AT&T claimed that failing to pass the bill would result in Kentucky falling behind technologically.

Kentucky Resources Council

Kentucky media picked up on the story, perhaps anticipating an interesting replay of the 2011 battle. Kentucky Tonight with Bill Goodman, televised an interview with FitzGerald, an AT&T attorney, Ron Bridges from the AARP Kentucky, and the executive director of Citizens for a Digital Future (CDF), an astroturf group supporting the group. Pickering believes exposure from the show increased momentum and contributed significantly to the campaign.

CDF, an organization claiming to represent senior citizens, ran an aggressive robocall campaign to push the bill. FitzGerald investigated the roots of CDF and found their leading national member was AT&T. He describes another member organization, 60 Plus, as "Rove-esque."

The robocall strategy back-fired when legislators of targeted districts in eastern Kentucky took offense. The calls named legislators who opposed the bill and claimed they were trying to impede progress in Kentucky and circumvent the legislative process. Chairman of the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark from eastern Kentucky knows how hard it is to get cell phone service in rural areas. He was particularly annoyed by CDF/AT&T's "heavy-handed" threats.

AT&T Wants to Gut Consumer Protections

AT&T and its allies also refused invitations to resolve problems with the bill. FitzGerald wrote several versions of a compromise proposal but AT&T would not give workable solutions the time of day. In the end, obstinance hurt their position.

When AT&T promised to increase its investment in Kentucky, FitzGerald looked at the numbers they supplied. He found no evidence for an increase beyond what they were already slated to invest. Lawmakers did not appreciate the wiley attempt to fool them.

Pickering, FitzGerald, and other leaders of the coalition used facts, education, and a willingness to cooperate to shed light on AT&T's dark motives. With a little media coverage, the strategy defeated millions of lobbying dollars. We know AT&T and other powerful telecommunications giants will continue to push for similar deregulation. However, this struggle in Kentucky can definitely be called a VICTORY for the public interest. 

Kentucky Coalition Takes Down AT&T Bill to Remove Consumer Phone Protections - Community Broadband Bits #44

Episode #44 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast expands on our story exploring a major victory over bad AT&T-driven legislation in Kentucky. We welcome Mimi Pickering of Appalshop and Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

We discuss why the AT&T-authored bill to gut consumer protections was bad for Kentucky and how a terrific coalition of public interest groups, unions, and others were able to protect the public interest. This was the second time they have defeated a similar bill, offering important lessons to those of us in different states that have not yet abandoned basic consumer protections for the telephone just because AT&T told our legislature they were unnecessary.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

PR Watch Ties ALEC to Now-Dead Bill in Georgia to Limit Internet Investment

Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch examines the ties between HB 282, the people behind it, and how it evolved into a threat to connectivity and local control. Brendan gave us permission to repost the story in full here. Since authoring this story, HB 282 was defeated in Georgia in a floor House vote. However, understanding where these bill comes from is critical, so we still wanted to run this piece.

Community-Owned Internet, Long Targeted by ALEC and Big Telecom, Under Fire in Georgia

Members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the Georgia Legislature are pushing a bill to thwart locally-owned internet in underserved communities, an industry-sponsored effort that effectively reinforces the digital divide. A vote in the Georgia Assembly is scheduled for Thursday, March 7; if Georgia passes the bill it would be the twentieth state to eliminate community control over internet access.

Rural and Poor Communities Take Control of Internet

As many as one in ten Americans cannot get internet connections that are fast enough for basic activities like streaming video or file sharing, largely because big internet providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable have refused to provide adequate service to communities where the population is too dispersed or too poor. As local economies become ever more dependent on internet access, though, this digital divide is leaving rural and low-income communities in the dust.

But local governments in places like Wilson, North Carolina and Thomasville, Georgia have taken matters into their own hands: they've built publicly owned high-speed internet to keep their communities viable in the 21st Century. These efforts have created jobs and helped save local economies, with businesses that rely on digital communication remaining in, or relocating to, the newly wired communities. 

Competition from these locally owned providers has irritated the big "incumbent" internet companies, which had managed to put-off upgrading their networks because of near-monopoly power in many areas. Municipal broadband -- which in many cases offers faster internet at a lower price -- "forces companies to invest in their own infrastructure because communities are doing it better," says Catharine Rice, President of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA).

PR Watch Logo

Instead of responding to competition with improved services, the industry has responded by pushing a raft of bills to crush community and local broadband.

"It is cheaper to hire a lobbyist and push a bill than invest in infrastructure," Rice told the Center for Media and Democracy. 

Georgia's HB 282 would prohibit cities from offering broadband to areas where just one home in a census block has internet speed above 3 Mbps. But 3Mbps is exceptionally slow. Businesses would likely be unable to upload a powerpoint presentation, doctors could not do medical file sharing or remote diagnosis, students could not access virtual education, and users could not access video on demand -- all of which is important for rural areas to remain competitive with the rest of the country, not to mention the world.

If Georgia passes the legislation it would be the twentieth state to preempt local efforts to offer broadband. The spread of these bills can be traced back to ALEC and its "model" Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards ActThree of the five named sponsors of Georgia’s HB 282 are ALEC members. 

ALEC Bill Passed in 19 States

Since at least 2001 ALEC has been a conduit for internet providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to eliminate competition. As Bloomberg Business Week has described, the bill that became the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act was largely drafted by AT&T and other big internet providers, and was first passed in Utah in 2001, after the city of Provo created a municipal broadband system. The following summer, the bill was brought to ALEC’s Annual Meeting in Orlando and adopted as a “model” by the ALEC Telecommunications & Information Technology Task Force.

Since becoming a model bill, the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act has spread across the country. Nineteen states now have restrictive municipal broadband bills on the books, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Wilson Greenlight Report

It passed most recently in North Carolina, where the exceptionally successful “Greenlight” program in Wilson had prompted incumbent internet providers like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Time Warner Cable to push the legislation starting in 2006. The bill had failed in previous sessions, but after control of the legislature shifted to Republicans in the 2010 elections and big telecom providers gave nearly $1.6 million in campaign contributions to North Carolina legislators over a five-year period, it finally became law in 2011.

In addition to campaign contributions and payments to ALEC, big internet providers have influenced legislators with valuable gifts. For example, AT&T was the second-highest contributor to the ALEC “scholarship” fund that pays for legislators’ flights and hotel rooms to ALEC meetings – a scheme that creates an environment for improper influence and would appear to violate many states’ ethics and lobbying laws. ALEC meetings are often held in fun cities like New Orleans and at swank hotels, and because state legislators earn, on average, about $46,000 a year, these destinations and resorts would otherwise be unaffordable. 

Nationally, AT&T gave $90,000 to the scholarship fund over a three-year period (2006-2008, the only years for which complete information is available). The legislators who are sponsoring the current bill before the Georgia legislature are major recipients of ALEC scholarships. Bill sponsor Representative Don Parsons, who is an active member of the ALEC Telecommunications & Information Technology Task Force, received $5735.48 over those three years, and Representative Ben Harbin received $3546.08 over two years. HB 282 sponsor Representative Mark Hamilton received $3527.80 in "scholarships" in 2008 alone. 

As a further incentive to attend ALEC meetings, elected officials are encouraged to bring their families and offered subsidized childcare and activities for kids six months and older, which they call "Kid's Congress." Time Warner Cable sponsored "Kid's Congress" at ALEC's 2011 Annual Meeting. At the April 2011 meeting, Time Warner Cable invited legislators to an exclusive party box at a Cincinnatti Reds baseball game, with food and drink provided.

If a lobbyist wants to contact a legislator within a state and make their views known, they have their ear for perhaps 15 minutes. They also have to register and report the time and expenditures. But through ALEC, corporate interests can access legislators for three days of meetings, workshops, and parties, where elected officials are basically a captive audience -- and where they know who is footing the bill.

2012 Bill Defeated, Thanks to Business Opposition

Georgia first saw anti-municipal broadband legislation in 2012. That bill was introduced by then-Senator Chip Rogers (R), who was the ALEC State Chair for Georgia (until his retirement in December) and the winner of the 2011 “State Chair of the Year” award.

Oppose SB 313

Sen. Rogers' bill was nearly a word-for-word duplication of what had passed in North Carolina. The bill had the support of the Georgia chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says Lou Comer, Director of Local Government Services at the Georgia Municipal Association, but Georgia businesses rallied against it.  

Municipalities reached out to businesses in their communities, who then contacted their legislators to express opposition to the bill. "The businesses made it clear that 'we are getting good service'," Comer said. If municipal broadband were eliminated these companies would have no choice but to return to the high-cost, low-speed internet offered by the incumbent providers, she said.

The big internet providers framed their opposition to municipal broadband in free market terms: the public sector interfering with the private sector, and taxpayer money being "wasted" because municipal projects supposedly are unsuccessful -- the notion that private industry always does things better than government. 

SEATOA's Rice doubts their motives. "Do these multi-billion dollar companies really care about community tax payers?" No, she says: "They care about their bottom line and profit margins."

If, as the industry alleges, municipal broadband projects are going to fail, the incumbent providers would have nothing to worry about. But according to Rice, "they are pushing these laws because they know [municipal broadband projects] don’t fail."

Thomasville, Georgia, for example, built its broadband 14 years ago and has been so successful that local officials have actually eliminated property taxes. Contrary to the industry claim that these projects cost taxpayers money, residents in this community are actually paying less tax.

Municipalities are "all about the private sector because we need them for economic development,” said the Georgia Municipal Association's Comer, noting that many of the rural communities that have built municipal broadband are solidly Republican.

"If the private sector would have come in and provided these services, [the municipalities] never would have needed to build their broadband projects," she said. "They had to do it to save their communities."

Oppose HB 282

Georgia Bill is Back

Georgia's legislation may have been defeated in 2012 but a version is back again in 2013. 

“We are not second class citizens because we decided to live in rural Georgia,” said Elberton, Georgia Mayor Larry Guest in testimony opposing the legislation.

“Georgia should be promoting a pro-business, inclusive approach to broadband deployment, especially in rural areas of the state,” he said.

The bill is again being opposed by businesses in the state, as well as tech companies like Google and Alcatel-Lucent, who argue that the private sector alone cannot build the nation's public infrastructure. Their letter to Rep. Bill Parsons also notes the recent goal outlined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to offer one gigabit access nationwide by 2015.

HB282 has been modified from the 2012 version to exempt some existing broadband projects -- perhaps to neuter opposition from businesses already benefitting from municipal broadband -- but it still creates onerous burdens and thwarts new projects, perhaps even including those already underway. 

"Other Georgia cities deserve the right to do what Elberton did, and their residents deserve the services Cumming has,” Mayor Guest said, referring to two communities that have municipal broadband projects.

“Competition ensures market-based pricing and faster delivery of state-of-the-art services. We have to do everything we can to attract jobs. If we don’t do that, business will not select rural Georgia. High speed access is essential to us.”

A vote on the bill is scheduled for Thursday, March 7.  

If you live in Georgia, you can send a letter to your representative from the Color of Change website urging the defeat of HB 282. 

Fiber Referendum Fails in Siloam Springs

In an unsurprising result, voters in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, chose not to build their own FTTH network. The margin was 58% against, 42% for. According to that article, the opponents (bankrolled largely by national cable company Cox) outspent proponents by 3:1.

We previously covered this plan and were concerned that the number one reason identified for proposing the network was to diversify revenue for the local government. Quite frankly, that is a poor reason to go head to head against massive companies like Cox and CenturyLink.

The biggest benefits of community networks tend to be the hard to quantify -- aggregate savings to the community from lower prices from all providers in a competitive environment, increased economic development, better customer service from a local provider, etc. These networks are built to be financially self-sufficient, but we caution against expecting them to be a piggy bank for the local government.

Unlike the successful Longmont approach, where those advocating for the community network engaged others who had been through similar fights elsewhere, it seemed like Siloam Springs preferred not to ask for help. Meanwhile, Cox tapped its nationwide resources to oppose the network, with misinformation like this:

Siloam Springs Opposition

Download the full size flyer here.

Communities that want to build community networks should engage the wider community of community broadband supporters and be prepared for flyers like this one. And when seeking local support, make sure you find messages that resonate. Make sure you read about the grassroots movement in Lafayette in our recent report or how Chattanooga had hundreds of community meetings to explain its plan.

These networks face stiff opposition from entrenched opponents that want to be the sole gatekeepers to the Internet -- ensuring a real choice means doing real organizing.

AT&T Fights Broadband Stimulus by Proxy

Phillip Dampier at Stop the Cap! has once again followed the money trail to reveal AT&T pulling puppet strings to attack broadband stimulus funds. More significantly, AT&T is trying to de-legitimize the provision of access to the Internet by any aside from the few big DSL and cable companies that have essentially cornered the market.

AT&T funds groups like Navigant that create misleading research and reports that they then use to confuse the media to spread messages that benefit AT&T.

Navigant spent much of 2011 trying to convince regulators and the public that T-Mobile actually doesn’t compete with AT&T, so there should be no problem letting the two companies merge. Readers win no prizes guessing who paid for that stunner of a conclusion. Thankfully, the Department of Justice quickly dismissed that notion as a whole lot of hooey.

Navigant’s second ludicrous conclusion is that there is no rural broadband availability problem. Navigant has a love affair with slow speed, spotty DSL (sold by AT&T) and heavily-capped 3G wireless (also sold by AT&T) as the Frankincense and Myrrh of rural Internet life. With those, you don’t need any broadband expansion (particularly from a third party interloper).

Thanks to Phil for taking the time to reveal these strategies.

The Real Government Takeover of the Internet

If you aren't familiar with SOPA - the "Stop Online Piracy Act" or its companion in the Senate (called PIPA or Protect IP), you should be. This is legislation that would allow the US government to require Internet Service Providers block web sites without due process. Sascha Meinrath and James Losey from the New America Foundation explain the threat in Slate:

The interconnected nature of the Internet fostered the growth of online communities such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. These sites host our humdrum daily interactions and serve as a public soapbox for our political voice. Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire tumblr.com domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.

If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider what happened to Mooo.com earlier this year. Back in February, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security seized 10 domains during a child-porn crackdown called “Operation Protect Our Children.” Along with this group of offenders, 84,000 more entirely innocent sites were tagged with the following accusatory splash page: “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution." Their only crime was guilt by association: They were all using the Mooo.com domain.

From our point of view, what is most interesting is not who is pushing this bill (Hollywood and the usual suspects that tried to kill the VCR because it would obviously destroy the movie industry) but who is not resisting. After all, whenever the issue of network neutrality comes up, the big telecom companies pay a bunch of organizations like Americans for Prosperity to create astroturf movements to oppose a "government takeover of the Internet." Of course, network neutrality is the opposite - a set of rules where the government requires corporations not dictate how subscribers use the Internet.

But here we have a literal government takeover of the Internet. Should SOPA pass, the federal government would decide what sites are allowed to be accessed by Americans and which cannot. The evidence thus far suggests that more sites will be harmed by incompetence as opposed to intentional political censorship but the entire approach is troubling, to say the least.

To get a sense of which elected officials are supporting this legislation, here are the cosponsors for HR 3261 in the House and cosposors for S 968 in the Senate. More details on how you can be involved at Demand Progress.

Many of the organizations who have strongly fought for an open Internet with strong network neutrality rules are pouring resources into stopping SOPA. This includes Free Press's Save the Internet, Public Knowledge, and others. Some of the network neutrality opponents, like the Wall Street Journal and Cato Institute have also warned against SOPA but other groups -- like Americans for Prosperity have been fairly silent. The next time AT&T and Time Warner Cable-sponsored groups start fear-mongering around policies that threaten to bring competition against their corporate sponsors, we must ask them where they were when the future of the Internet was truly threatened.

The Future of Music organization has reviewed an alternative to SOPA that may be a much better approach.

Below is a video about SOPA.

Image credit: monkeyc on Flickr.

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