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Jim Baller on the History of Municipal Networks, Part II on Community Broadband Bits Podcast

Jim Baller is back again for the second show in our series on the history of municipal broadband networks. He is the President of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, DC, and a long time advocate for both community owned networks specifically and better access to the Internet for all more generally.

We kicked this history series off on Episode 57 where we talked about some of the early community cable networks and how federal law came to allow states to preempt local authority.

In this episode, we talk about the early FTTH networks in Chelan, Washingon; Bristol, Virginia; Kutztown, Pennsylvania; and Dalton, Georgia. We also talk about how the states began restricting local investments, particularly in Pennsylvania under pressure from Verizon.

We will continue the series in subsequent episodes. 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 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Georgia Bill to Kill Community Broadband Reportedly Shelved

We are hearing that SB 313 in Georgia, AT&T's bill to overrule local authority, will be turned into a study bill. Despite the strong support of the Senate Majority Leader, the bill lost support after we and others exposed the frank admission of AT&T's CEO that they had no plans to expand broadband in rural areas.

Given the strength of AT&T's lobbying and the support of the Senate Majority Leader, this is a tremendous victory. Congratulations to the communities in Georgia that successfully organized and defended their authority to decide locally if a network is a wise choice for them.

We do not consider these issues resolved until the ink is dried, but it does look like AT&T lost this round -- which means thousands of local businesses and millions of people won. They can still hope for next-generation networks and a real choice in providers.

Note: the South Carolina bill remains in play and will be discussed on Wednesday by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.

We have been collecting some of the news coverage of this broadband debate in Georgia, but have neglected posting until now. Here is a run-down of some of the coverage.

In the beginning of February, the AP covered an SB 313 hearing featuring testimony from rural communities:

Leaders from cities including Elberton, Hogansville, Thomasville, Monroe and Toccoa lined up to tell senators that broadband is necessary infrastructure for the 21st century economic development they hope to attract — and that they are doing what they must to keep their communities competitive.

"We cannot wait for the private sector to ride to our rescue," said Tim Martin, executive director of the Toccoa-Stephens County Development Authority.

Thomasville Mayor Max Beverly said the city's broadband network supports major employers there.

"If we have to cut them off, there's no telling what that's going to do to our local economy," he warned.

The Augusta Chronicle devoted a lot of words to both sides and made the important disclosure that telecom companies had just staffed up on lobbyists:

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.

Stop the Cap!

Stop the Cap! has continued its in-depth coverage of these important issues. In January, Phillip revealed the sudden increase in telco/cableco contributions to the bill's pusher, most notably from AT&T. He also set the record straight on many of the supposed failures of muni networks in Georgia. For example:

As Multichannel News reported in 2002, “the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, Ga., isn’t selling because business is bad. Rather, officials said they’ve received so many requests for service from outside the city limits that they’ve decided to sell the operation to an independent company that may expand beyond Acworth’s borders.”

That is where the trouble started. The city contracted with United Telesystems Inc. of Savannah, Ga., a private company, first to lease and then eventually buy the cable system, maintaining and expanding it along the way. But in 2003, United Telesystems defaulted on its lease-sale agreement, forcing the city to foreclose on the system and ultimately sell it to a second company.

Acworth’s “failure” wasn’t actually the city’s, it was the private company that defaulted on its contract.

On February 1, Phillip discussed the Columbia County Broadband Network:

If Rogers’ bill passes, the county may have to go back to begging for access from the companies that have repeatedly said it wasn’t worth the investment or their time.

County officials have been more generous, offering all along to share access to the fiber network with the very providers who are seeking to destroy it. So far, that hasn’t changed any minds.

“If we don’t own it, that means we don’t want you to have it” is standard operating procedure for the state’s phone and cable operators, even in the service areas they routinely ignore, even if it means flushing millions of dollars already spent on new networks down the drain.

On February 7, Stop the Cap! covered more of the testimony from towns against the bill:

seal-newnan-ga.png

“We started our cable system not on a whim but on a demand from our citizens to provide a higher level of service for cable TV and Internet,” said Newnan Mayor Keith Brady. “We got into the cable business originally to provide fiber optics and broadband because Charter Communications would simply not invest in our community.”

...

Brady says their community-owned system not only provides broadband where Charter would not, the cable company also was forced to reduce their rates for consumers in nearby communities, saving taxpayers across the entire city and county millions.

In Elberton, the lack of broadband was so pervasive the 4,700 local residents demanded the city provide the service themselves. Commercial providers had stonewalled the county seat of Elbert County for years until the city broke ground on a broadband project in 2001.

...

Don Cope, president and CEO of Dalton Utilities, demonstrated that municipal broadband systems are not the financial risk large telecommunications companies always claim they represent. In fact, Dalton’s system has never received a penny of tax revenue and its accounting is open to public scrutiny to prove it.

Cope noted SB 313 imposes restrictions on community providers, but completely exempts those owned by the companies pushing the bill.

OptiLink Dalton

“I would ask that you look at the private providers in the state,” Cope said. “Look at their reports, and you would see how many dollars that are provided to them from the federal government. We are talking about in the billions of dollars. All the [private telecommunications entities] that I know about have some form of government support.”

CivSource also offered an opinion about the bill:

“The private sector is handling this exceptionally well,” Rogers said in an Associated Press account. “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.”

Rogers claims are dubious at best. According to the National Broadband Map, Georgia ranks 20th in the nation for broadband access. According to the forward of a report by Rich Calhoun, Program Director of the Georgia Technology Initiative, “As I traveled through the state to talk with leaders in municipalities, counties and community anchor institutions, I found that many places throughout Georgia indicated that they did not have access to affordable or sufficient broadband services. Telecommunications firms who have made significant investments in Georgia indicated that in some areas of the state the return on investment would not qualify for further investment at the present time.”

Dalton's OptiLink Community Network Draws Praise

OptiLink, the community fiber network in Dalton, Georgia, has been chosen by local newspaper readers as the Best Internet Provider in 2010 - the third year in a row.

According to Stop the Cap!, the community network has a take-rate of 70% and generates $1.5 million in revenue monthly - real money that stays in the community rather than being distributed to Charter shareholders.

Learn more about OptiLink here.