New Legislation Looking to Kill Municipal Broadband in Iowa (again)

Update: The Community Broadband Action Network (CBAN) notes that it looks like SSB 1184 is dead, having been shelved in committee yesterday. They say the "bill was briefly discussed by a subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee on February 16th, but postponed 'indefinitely.'"

Original story:

Less than a year after an attempt to hamstring municipal broadband in Iowa, local opponents are at it again. If you’ve been around the block, Senate Study Bill 1184 will look remarkably similar to SSB 3009 from last January 2020, and that’s because it’s nearly identical. 

Like its last incarnation, SSB 1184 threatens the viability of any new municipal broadband effort by placing draconian financial barriers in the way, and, if passed, handcuffs existing networks as well as those under construction. Though there are no public fingerprints on the bill, the word around the capitol is that Mediacom is behind it. Among its provisions are those that would:

  • Prohibit cities and towns from issuing loans from the general or reserve fund or an existing electric utility to a broadband division at an interest rate lower than the prevailing market rate set by private financing institutions.
  • Prohibit government entities from forgiving debt related to the construction or operation of a telecommunications system.
  • Set a maximum interest rate at which a municipal broadband utility could borrow to finance a new network, cutting off funding avenues
  • Disallow existing municipal networks from responding to the market in setting rates.
  • Prevent municipal network from bundling multiple city services in single transactions.

Individually, any of these conditions would represent a significant win for a provider looking to restrict competition with cities interested in building Internet infrastructure; collectively, they would be a gigantic step backwards in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally as it relates to broadband connectivity, with more than 300,000 residents lacking wireline access at speeds of at least 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). They would affect established networks like Cedar Falls and Coon Rapids, as well as communities like Fort DodgeVinton, Pella, and Waterloo that are making progress.

Here’s what General Counsel from the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Tom Whipple said last year of the 2020 version of the legislation:

While community-owned broadband may not work for all communities, cities should have the opportunity to begin providing these services without having undue restrictions placed on them . . . especially in areas where incumbent providers aren’t properly investing.

SSB 1184 currently sits in a commerce subcommittee. Mediacom is the only entity to have filed a lobbyist declaration in favor of the bill, with AT&T and Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) undecided, and the Iowa League of Cities, the Nebraska Municipal Power Pool, and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities all registering their opposition. 

One of Mediacom’s representatives is Doug Struyk, who complained to the Times-Republican that House Study Bill 133 (also currently in committee), which would require the Empower broadband grant program to only be used for projects capable of delivering 100/100 Mbps, is too aggressive and would exclude the company’s fixed wireless service in the state. The Internet Service Provider (ISP), which serves about two-thirds of all Iowans, has long waged a campaign against communities looking to build their own broadband infrastructure after being left behind for decades.

We’ll keep an eye on SSB 1184 and report back any changes.