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Postmortem in Wyoming: Cheyenne Mayor on Interrupted Legislation - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 308
Local communities considering investment to improve connectivity for businesses and residents have many factors to consider, including state laws. The best laid plans for broadband can be torpedoed if state legislators are influenced enough by incumbent lobbyists to pass laws that complicate local authority or funding. This week, we hear about Wyoming from Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr.
Mayor Orr describes how incumbents in her community claim that access to broadband is plentiful, but business leaders and residents describe a different reality. In order to seek out possible solutions, the city has now created a broadband task force to analyze the problem.
Earlier this year, Mayor Orr expressed excitement about SF 100, a state bill that was written to provide funding for local communities interested in exploring better solutions for local connectivity. While the bill was in committee, however, lobbyists from incumbents CenturyLink and Spectrum found a way to derail the parts of the bill that would help places like Cheyenne make their own decisions. Now, the bill requires that funding be used only for public-private partnerships and focus only on the areas with the worst connectivity.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn industry completely re-wrote proposed broadband legislation to their favor as a “substitute bill” in legislative cmt today. CenturyLink and Spectrum are bullies. It’s wrong and they are hurting WY communities. @ENDOWyo @WYLegislature
— Mayor Marian Orr (@gofishwyo) February 19, 2018
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Marian Orr: The incumbents will claim that we are actually a terabyte city and I have yet to see that.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 308 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Cheyenne, Wyoming, home to more than 60,000 people, seems like a place densely populated enough to encourage the incumbents to offer fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. While big ISPs claimed that the city is sufficiently served, businesses and residents don't agree. Speeds are not where they need to be and rates are high. In order to solve the situation, community leaders, including Mayor Marian Orr, have been looking into possible solutions. Mayor Orr took some time out of her schedule to talk to Christopher for this week's podcast. In addition to some of the steps the community is taking, Mayor Orr and Christopher discussed Senate File 100, a piece of legislation passed during Wyoming's most recent session to improve broadband access. The bill started out as a way to provide resources to local communities, but as Mayor Orr describes, incumbents intervened and the outcome changed significantly. Christopher and the mayor talk about the steps Cheyenne has taken so far and where they're headed next. Onto the interview.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance up in Minneapolis. Today I'm speaking with Mayor Marian Orr, the mayor of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Welcome to the show.
Marian Orr: Good morning.
Christopher M: Well, I'm very excited to speak with you. I've been through Wyoming a couple of times. It is a crazy beautiful state. I get a sense you've been around all parts of it, and I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about your corner of Cheyenne currently.
Marian Orr: Our state is beautiful. We, here in Cheyenne, we are in the southeast corner with our population is about 63,000. We are just only about a hundred miles away from Denver. So we are what is considered a part of the Rocky mountain front range.
Christopher Mitchell: And how has broadband — I mean city of 63,000 I would think it's, I would guess you have a pretty decent cable system, some DSL. What is the situation from your perspective?
Marian Orr: Well, the situation here in Cheyenne is one that there are "haves" and "have-nots" as is probably the case with a lot of communities. Depending on if you're downtown, there's fairly good high-speed connectivity, but it's pretty costly when we look to some of our other sister communities around the state as far as what you actually get for the dollar.
Christopher Mitchell: And so are you hearing from constituents then, and is it a broad range of constituents, regarding their experiences?
Marian Orr: Boy, since taking office I have heard from some folks, both residential and commercial, really questioning the high cost for you know, the somewhat not-so-fast services and you know, the definition of what is high-speed Internet is a little bit different for everybody. But, certainly at least in our downtown hub area, we really want to promote one one gig service at an affordable $300-, $400-a-month kind of price. And, right now, it's closer to $2,000 a month. So, it's pretty costly.
Christopher Mitchell: I assume that's got to be a pretty big challenge. You're not that far from Fort Collins either, in which they have, I think a more reasonably priced gig already and soon we'll have a rock-bottom priced gig. Are you fearing a little bit of sort of competition for economic development in a city so close to you?
Marian Orr: Absolutely, we are. Your listeners may or may not be aware Fort Collins has decided to go to, I believe, a municipally owned system, which will certainly help control costs. And, when it comes to attracting and retaining businesses, we certainly do look at our competitive communities across the border and for that reason I established a broadband task force and they've been hard at work at creating some policy recommendations for my administration.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I hear from mayors' offices and certainly city council members, is they hear frequently from incumbents that there's no need to do anything, that they have the situation in hand. Is that a message you've been getting?
Marian Orr: It is a message I've been getting and it's so frustrating and it — the incumbents will claim that we are actually a terabyte city and I have yet to see that or believe that it's anywhere close to being reasonably priced. And so it's definitely a tale of two different perspectives.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, in some ways it would be almost as though the interstate went through Cheyenne and you didn't have a single road otherwise. And people tell you, "There's no problem. We've got this incredible interstate."
Marian Orr: Yeah, absolutely! And it may or may not be open.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and it doesn't even have on-ramps are off-ramps.
Marian Orr: Yeah, it's definitely frustrating in conversation.
Christopher Mitchell: To some extent, I feel like you may be better equipped than others to deal with this because you have a background in lobbying and I'm curious if that background maybe makes you more frustrated or better able to deal with hearing those claims when you know that your downtown needs better service for its businesses.
Marian Orr: Well, absolutely. My background in lobbying has served me well as far as being able to certainly navigate the legislative process regarding some legislation that was carried through last year. And the other double-edged sword is that the lobbyists for the incumbents are also colleagues. I've known them for years, and so at times we agree to disagree and not be disagreeable.
Christopher Mitchell: That's good. In a smaller state, it's essential, I'm sure.
Marian Orr: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: So, let's talk a little bit about that. You're the capital city, so you have the luxury of being able to be more involved in state legislation. There was a bill that was commonly called SF 100, I believe, that was a push to try and deal with encouraging more investment in broadband in the state. Can you tell me a little bit about that, what the initial idea behind that bill was?
Marian Orr: Correct. So the original thought behind Senate File 100 was to provide communities with basically a grant funding availability to better increase their connectivity. And throughout the legislative process, it was really kind of scaled back to really service more of the rural areas that are truly underserved and I can appreciate that, by all means. And so what the legislation basically ended up doing was enabling and establishing a broadband coordinator for the State of Wyoming and creating an advisory council. And it's my understanding that the state's currently looking at hiring that state coordinator and creating that advisory council.
Christopher M: My understanding of the processes is that the sponsor was pretty frustrated in that, and I don't even know if the sponsor was a man or a woman, but I remember that the sponsor was not really consulted when the bill was changed significantly, which it seems like a breach of common practices.
Marian Orr: Certainly that was a bit of a bone of contention in that the lobbyists for the incumbents were not very pleased with the initial draft as it was written and pooled their resources together and proposed a really substantial amendment, if you will, almost a substitute bill. And then that was scaled back as well, too. So this is one of those where certainly it took a lot of communication, but it's also — I shouldn't say, it's not too uncommon in this budget session in even-numbered years, such as our last budget session was, we actually are only in session for 20 days, and so that's a very short amount of time to pull together a good piece of legislation that works for everybody.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. It's a good reminder of the stresses that people are working under with all the different issues. I am curious, so in the original, my impression was, and I admit that I didn't dig as much into this as I really should have given my position, but it seems to me like it was a sense that originally that the state was going to give money to localities and have them use it more broadly as they saw fit, and it seems like now it's less money and it's going to localities with more stringent conditions on how they could use it. Is that accurate?
Marian Orr: That's a very accurate description of really what happened. The initial legislation, for example, I believe it's something that my community, that Cheyenne could have availed itself to and instead it was scaled back to really pretty rural areas in a very narrow, more narrowly defined service, and with less funding.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I thought was intelligent and I hadn't seen this in many other places, was that it focused on two different things. One was residential access and I don't think Cheyenne would've qualified for that, but the other was very focused on the business district access. Can you just maybe explain why that's important?
Marian Orr: We have found that it's very important to have those two different conversations because certainly residential is important. And in some areas it's, the speeds are actually quite, quite slow. And so, residential is certainly one conversation, but at least for my administration we have, our focus has been on commercial, you know, as far as prioritization because without jobs you really don't then have the residents. And to really grow our community and provide competitive wages and high-paying jobs, we need high-speed access to our businesses.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, what is the path forward then? What are you going to be able to do next?
Marian Orr: Well, locally, the broadband task force that I've established, they're working this week to finalize their memo to me regarding policies that we can work on here in Cheyenne. One policy that I expect to see is essentially a one dig policy that would help certainly residential as well as commercial. Basically, when we open up the streets and do some work, you know, look at a very minimum lane conduit to better ease access. And then, statewide, I expect here probably shortly in the next few weeks and early coming months for a state coordinator for broadband to be named as well as members of that state advisory council.
Christopher Mitchell: My experience here in Minnesota is having a very high-quality person in that position makes all the difference in the world. So, I certainly hope that they find a high-quality person that can do the work. I'm curious about the distance that you are from Fort Collins, because I know on the map it's pretty close, but politically it's, it's quite far away and so I'm curious if you could just walk me through the you know, as a more conservative city in a much more conservative state, is there any tension with the city being more involved with this process?
Marian Orr: Well, we certainly are different politically than Fort Collins. As you mentioned, we are much more conservative and services that would be municipally owned that would go over like a lead balloon in my community and I'd have to agree with that. I really believe in private sector and in competition. And, so I think what we're going to be looking at is maybe a hybrid or a mix. We are looking at, you know, the big phrase is "public-private partnerships" and how we can possibly work with the different companies, including the incumbents and combine that with perhaps lessening regulations on our end such as, Right-of-Way fees that we tend to charge and just continue that conversation forward.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, one of the things that we've certainly been inspired by is some models coming out of Idaho and Montana. Where Ammon, Idaho has a terrific model, which some larger cities are contemplating, and Bozeman has a very interesting approach in which they've created a nonprofit open-access network. So, there's all kinds of examples to draw on, fortunately.
Marian Orr: There are. What's exciting is that there's a lot of conversation about this and I feel really fortunate to be able to have conversations with other mayors, certainly around the region, if not around the country.
Christopher Mitchell: My last question is about the task force, and it's, it's a challenge I think, I would suspect because you have to include the incumbents in a task force that is trying to solve a problem they generally won't admit exists. And yet, one wants to have a task force that's relatively united at the end of the day. And so I'm just curious if you could share a little bit about the pressures of creating a task force that will be able to come up with real recommendations rather than either be un-credible or just fall into infighting.`
Marian Orr: Well, that certainly was a challenge. I'd be lying if I didn't say that my first inclination was not to include the incumbents on the task force, but I knew better politically that it's best to bring everybody to the table and certainly some of the conversations were awkward. Awkward is probably the best way to describe them. What we have is a recommendation that will be coming forward with more broad generalizations that have included the incumbents. And then, I suspect what we will see will be some sub working groups on other specific issues that might exclude the incumbents in that conversation.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Well, I appreciate getting a sense of reality on the ground. I'm often talking with people that are telling elected officials how to make decisions rather than actually weighing those decisions. So, I appreciate the time you've taken today with us.
Marian Orr: My pleasure.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Mayor Marian Orr from Cheyenne, Wyoming on state legislation and the legislative process and the community's plans to improve local connectivity. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter: His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast an the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. Access them on Apple podcast, Stitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research: Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle," licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 308 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.