Colorado House passes bill that reduces broadband board membership and conceals mapping data
Michigan legislature approves bill granting ISPs property tax exemptions
New Mexico and Virginia bills await governors’ action
The State Scene
Tennessee is home to some of the most creative local solutions to bridging the digital divide. Municipal fiber networks across the state, including Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber network, Morristown’s FiberNet, and Bristol’s network, have been a boon to economic development, job creation, educational initiatives, and overall quality of life in the past decade.
The next city to potentially join the ranks of providing municipal broadband in Tennessee is Knoxville. On March 11, the Knoxville Utility Board approved a business plan to provide Internet services across its service area.
Despite the widespread success of municipal networks across Tennessee, the state restricts what populations they can serve. Although Tennessee law allows cities and towns to offer advanced telecommunications services if they have a municipal electric utility, the networks are not permitted to offer those services to residents who live outside of the utility’s service area. Removing these restrictions would permit substantial fiber expansion to connect more residents at no cost to the state or taxpayers.
Multiple laws introduced this legislative session in Tennessee sought to overturn statutes stifling the expansion of municipal networks. As of yet, these legislative proposals have stalled in committee, had their hearings postponed until next year’s legislative session, or been withdrawn altogether. AT&T and Comcast have historically killed these bills in subcommittees and committees early in the process in order to continue limiting broadband competition in Tennessee, sometimes with their lobbyists outnumbering legislators significantly.
H.B. 28, which would allow municipal electric plants to extend Internet service to "distressed counties," was deferred by the Business and Utilities Subcommittee until the 2022 legislative session, pushing the delivery of critical utilities back at least another year.
In an identical fashion, H.B. 817, which would remove the prerequisite requiring consent from a municipality in order for another municipality operating an electric plant to provide services to it, was also deferred by the subcommittee until next year’s session. That bill would also add “municipal electric plants to the list of entities that may be awarded a grant,” and raise the speed bar, allowing this grant to go to ISPs who offer higher speeds (at 20/3 Megabits per second instead of the current 10/1 Mbps threshold.)
S.B. 565 has sat in the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce and Labor waiting to receive a hearing since February 25. S.B. 565 would permit municipalities operating electric plants to provide Internet access services, including fiber-to-the-premises, “either on its own or by joint venture” in areas that are inside and outside the electric plant's service area. H.B. 623, introduced as companion legislation to S.B. 565, was withdrawn on February 24.
The clock is running with Tennessee’s legislative session set to adjourn on May 6.
Colorado’s House of Representatives passed H.B. 1109 on March 22. While some aspects of the bill seem like an effort to get a clearer picture of the state’s digital landscape, such as requirements for third-party speed verification, the creation of a RFP process to increase broadband deployment in "critically unserved" regions, and requiring additional consideration for projects that would include a discounted service for low-income households, other aspects of the bill run counter to proving transparency.
The bill would make "granular coverage" mapping data submitted to the Office of Information Technology confidential under the Colorado Open Records Act, exempting the data from public disclosure. Granular coverage mapping data submitted, including maximum download and upload speeds available in an area, the technology used to provide the service, and whether the network serves business, residents, or both, would not be considered to be in the public record under H.B. 1109.
The legislation would also reduce the number of members on the state’s broadband deployment board from 16 to 11 members.
This week, the Michigan State Senate approved State Rep. Beth Griffin’s (R-66) proposal to expand Internet access in the underserved areas and rural regions of the state such as the Upper Peninsula area.
Griffin’s proposed bill, H.B. 4210, aims to do that by granting a personal property tax exemption on broadband infrastructure first installed or used after December 31, 2020. Griffin argues that the intent of the bill is to spur deployment of Internet resources in rural areas, but the tax benefit would be implemented statewide. There is no evidence that changing these tax policies results in more investment and there are fears it mostly benefits larger monopolies in areas already considered served.
The Senate passed the bill 20-15, sending it to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk awaiting her signature before the bill becomes law.
The Broadband Access and Expansion Act, S.B. 93, which would create a central state agency to develop and upgrade New Mexico's broadband infrastructure, passed the state House of Representatives, with amendments, by a vote of 61-4 on March 18.
The State Senate scrambled to pass the legislation the following day, one day shy of the end of New Mexico’s legislative session. The legislation now awaits the governor's signature to take effect.
Legislation that would overturn Nebraska’s rigid barriers to community networks by allowing municipalities to provide Internet services on a retail or wholesale basis, L.B. 656, was introduced on January 20 by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne (D-13). But, after little legislative discussion, the bill was indefinitely postponed on February 25. Nebraska is a state entirely served by public power for electricity but a law passed in 2005 by Lumen (more commonly known as CenturyLink, though in 2005 the company was called Qwest) effectively prohibits those agencies from helping to improve Internet access.
There was no discussion of the bill during floor debates on January 20, January 28, or February 25. Then, on February 9, in the Committee on Transportation and Telecommunications State Senators voted 5-1 in favor of the bill. Yet, the committee decided to indefinitely postpone the bill without explanation.
Opponents of the bill, who testified before the committee, included Tip O'Neill, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, who tried to justify maintaining the prohibition on municipal broadband networks by arguing the bill would create competition for private companies. “A municipality should not provide a service in competition with a (private) service provider,” said O’Neill.
Jim Ediger, representing Hamilton Telecommunications, insisted municipalities would prioritize service to densely populated areas to keep costs low, a claim with little veracity as communities most desperately searching for broadband solutions are often in the rural regions of states. John Idoux of Lumen (CenturyLink), and Sean Kelley, representing the Nebraska Internet and Television Association, also submitted written arguments opposing the bill.
Nebraska outright prohibits communities and public power companies from providing telecommunications services. Banning the public sector from providing Internet access forces communities to sit on their hands and wait for private companies to invest in critical infrastructure, which simply may never come. The big monopolies are well aware that in many cases, municipalities would not directly provide services but would instead create public-private partnerships with local companies that would bring new investment and choice to their communities.
“The state is enforcing private, for-profit monopolies by prohibiting municipalities from offering the same service as private service providers,” Wayne, the bill’s sponsor, told The Omaha Daily Record.
Municipal broadband advocates are biting their nails as the deadline for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to take action on legislation which would authorize school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private ISPs to pay for Internet access for low-income students across the Commonwealth, rapidly approaches.
S.B. 1225, proposed by State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33) in the Virginia General Assembly, was hurried to file during one of the last days of the state’s special session on February 25. Gov. Northam’s deadline to act on the legislation, which could immediately assist in connecting low-income students, is on March 31.
Boysko also sponsored S.B. 1413, a bill that would make permanent a pilot program that allows Phase I and Phase II electric utilities to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide Internet access to unserved areas of the state. Amendments recommended by the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which expanded the program to allow municipal and government-owned broadband authorities to participate, were adopted January 28.
Virginia lawmakers worked in the same rapid fashion to move S.B. 1413 through the Assembly before the state’s special session ended. The last day for Gov. Northam to act on the legislation is March 31.