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Community Broadband Legislation Roundup – April 27, 2021
Washington Governor pledges to sign Public Broadband Act
Maine hearing will reveal State Legislature’s willingness to introduce competition to incumbent ISPs
California bill amended to remove bond initiative backing public infrastructure projects of local communities
The State Scene
Two pieces of legislation aimed at expanding public broadband authority, H.B. 1336 and S.B. 5383, have been delivered to Washington Gov. Jay Islee to consider signing into law. Rep. Drew Hansen, the primary sponsor of H.B. 1336 recently told GeekWire that he “expects the governor to sign both.”
H.B. 1336 would give Washington’s cities, towns, counties, district ports and Public Utility Districts (PUDs) unrestricted authority to provide Internet services directly to end-users, while S.B. 5383, as a result of a series of amendments, deals largely with what information PUDs and ports have to provide to the state broadband office before offering service in unserved regions.
There will be a meeting between the governor and the sponsors of the two bills on Thursday, which will likely determine their fate. Although arguments about how the two bills will interplay are continuing throughout the halls of the State Legislature in Olympia, the prevailing legal interpretation is that the finalized versions of the bills do not conflict. If both bills are signed, and discrepancies are later discovered to be an issue, it will prompt the State Legislature to convene in the future to standardize differences between the legislation.
Provisions previously included in S.B. 5383 clashed with the objective of H.B. 1336. Before S.B. 5383 was amended, it included a challenge process that gave existing broadband service providers the ability to object to proposed retail service projects of PUDs and ports in unserved areas. On Friday, however, the Washington Senate agreed to the amendments offered by the State House, tweaking the bills to be more compatible, according to Hansen.
The order in which the two bills are signed is another concern, as the language of the bill signed second may override the bill signed first. If the governor is planning on signing both, Rep. Hansen has asked for his bill, H.B. 1336, to be signed second because it would give more latitude for public entities to provide direct broadband service.
If Gov. Islee signs off on the legislation, H.B. 1336 will become law on July 1, which would be timely as it will put Washington’s public entities in a better position to take advantage of the anticipated federal funding for broadband initiatives in the Biden Administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan.
Washington’s Whatcom County PUD is already gearing up for expansion and currently has three related job positions open. See more details about employment opportunities at the bottom of this post.
L.D. 1432, a bill that would reform the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund under the ConnectMaine Fund, is set to receive a public hearing on April 27 in the State Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. The reformed Gigabit Fund would support the build out of municipally owned broadband infrastructure by alleviating well-known shortcomings in the administration of ConnectMaine grants.
Currently, the Gigabit Fund puts publicly-owned projects in competition with privately-owned projects for state funding opportunities. State legislators are finding that “unserved towns are being approached and heavily lobbied by local ISPs to provide information sufficient so that the for-profit ISPs can seek and obtain the ConnectMaine funds for the expansion of their own networks in competition to the regional utility,” according to testimony by Rep. Victoria Doudera.
“This bill would apply public funds for municipalities to own their broadband networks instead of continuing the problematic pattern of providing public money to for-profit entities who retain ownership and rate-setting authority of an important utility,” wrote Neal Goldberg, testifying on behalf of the Maine Municipal Association.
Charter Communications lobbyists are expected to continue its opposition campaign against publicly-owned networks during Tuesday’s hearing, which incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been relentless in pursuing in the state capital for years. Charter Communication’s testimony opposing L.D. 1432 inaccurately represents the stories of a few failed municipal networks. For example, the testimony cites iProvo, a municipally-owned FTTH network in Provo, Utah, as having failed because it did not attract enough subscribers. In reality Provo’s network failed because industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to pass legislation restricting local authority over municipal networks, so that municipalities could only employ the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model, which has proven to be the riskiest approach. Incumbent providers have employed these same arguments in the past as Exhibit A in their case against communities going into the telecommunications business.
The testimony aims to fight off any potential competitors to Charter’s dominance over Maine’s broadband market by claiming that limited state dollars would be stretched further by the private sector and that one service provider is enough to serve each community. However, the current lack of competition leaves subscribers at the mercy of Charter, with no say in the quality of service or pricing.
The decision around the Gigabit Fund will be an indicator of the State Legislature’s support of public ownership models and go a long way in determining if the state’s broadband market becomes more competitive, whether it be through the ownership of infrastructure or offering services over competitively-neutral, open access infrastructure.
A bill moving through California’s State Senate, S.B. 4, was amended by the State Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee on April 15 to remove the inclusion of a state-backed bond program which would have given local governments access to more than $1 billion in low-interest bonds to fund broadband infrastructure projects.
Removing the bond program, which was considered by some to be the heart of the effort, severely limits the bill’s impact. Creating long-term, low-interest financing that explicitly targets building public or nonprofit networks would make access more equitable, more universal and more affordable. Most importantly, by unlocking the bond market, it would have given communities the autonomy to decide their own economic and civic futures.
After being amended, S.B. 4 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was rereferred to the Senate Rules Committee, before making its way to the Appropriations Committee.
A similar bond initiative may be incorporated into another legislative vehicle. A.B. 34 would allow California voters to empower the community in which they reside to create their own Internet access solutions by adding a multi-billion dollar bond initiative to the November ballot. The bill recently passed the State Assembly’s Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection by a vote of 11-1, and is now in the Appropriations Committee.
A bill sent to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday, S.B. 377, would establish the Indiana Broadband Connectivity Program within the Office of Community of Rural Affairs (ORCA).
Provisions included may allow the state to more effectively use Rural Broadband Grant funding. The bill increases the speed required for an ISP to be eligible for state funding. For an ISP to be eligible for funding, it would have to provide a minimum connectivity speed of 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 5 Mbps upstream. S.B. 377 would also give priority to projects that would serve the greatest number of homes and businesses for the lowest state contribution.
Lastly, the program will provide funding for ORCA to establish a public broadband portal, through which individuals can report whether broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps are available at residential or business addresses.
Federal investments in digital infrastructure and digital literacy initiatives are on the rise, and so are opportunities for job openings:
Washington’s Public Utility District No. 1 of Whatcom County is gearing up for expansion and looking to hire: a Project Manager, a Broadband Services Analyst and an Electric Utility Analyst. All applications will remain open until filled.
human-I-T recently opened a number of roles to help close the digital divide, many of which can be performed remotely, despite having a location listed. human-I-T connects low-income households to high-speed internet, computers, digital literacy training, and technical support by repurposing corporate technology (or E-Waste).