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We’re a little off kilter these days when it comes to state legislation. Typically, we spend our efforts helping local communities stave off bills to steal, limit, or hamstring local telecommunications authority. This year it’s different so Christopher and Lisa sat down to have a brief chat about some of the notable state actions that have been taken up at state Capitols.
We decided to cover a few proposals that we feel degrade the progress some states have made, bills that include positive and negative provisions, and legislation that we think will do nothing but good. Our analysis covers the map from the states in New England to states in the Northwest.
In addition to small changes that we think will have big impact - like the definition of “broadband” - we discuss the way tones are shifting. In a few places, like Colorado, state leaders are fed up with inaction or obstruction from the big ISPs that use the law to solidify their monopoly power rather than bring high-quality connectivity to citizens. Other states, like New Hampshire and Washington, recognize that local communities have the ability to improve their situation and are taking measured steps to reduce barriers to broadband deployment.
While they still maintain significant power in many places, national corporate ISPs may slowly be losing their grip over state legislators. We talk about that, too.
For more on these and other bills, check out our recent stories on state and federal legislation.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
The Broadband Deployment Advisory Council (BDAC), established by the FCC in January 2017, has caused concern among groups interested in protecting local authority. On April 12th, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) voiced those concerns in a precisely worded letter to Ajit Pai’s FCC that spelled out the way the BDAC is running roughshod over local rights.
Leaving Out The Locals
As CLIC states in the beginning of their letter, the lack of local representation on the BDAC indicates that the FCC has little interest in hearing from cities, towns, and other local government. There’s plenty of representation on the Council, however, from corporations and private carriers.
From CLIC’s letter:
The audacity and impropriety of the process is clear from the fact that this entity, comprised primarily of corporate and carrier interests, is empowered by the Commission to develop model codes that could potentially impact every locality and state in the United States without any serious input from the communities it will most affect.
This group of individuals has been tasked with developing model codes that may be adopted at the local level; local input is not only necessary to create policies that are consider the needs of local folks, but that will work. To achieve productivity, BDAC needs to understand the environments in which their proposals may be adopted, otherwise their goal to be increasing broadband deployment may be compromised. Omitting a broad local perspective is not only improper it’s counterproductive.
The BDAC has already released a draft model state code, which has stirred up resistance and CLIC explains why. A key problem with the legislation is that it doesn’t appear to be backed up with anything other than philosophies, ideals, or self-interest, writes CLIC. Policy this important should be based on data.
They lay out eight specific and definable reasons why the proposed legislation falls flat for local communities.
Lawmakers in Ohio are slowly advancing a proposal to help fund rural broadband deployment. HB 378 has similarities to Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Program and will infuse $100 million in to broadband deployment ecosystem over the next two years. It’s a welcome lift for rural areas struggling to fend off economic dilemmas.
Last fall, State Senators Cliff Hite and Joe Schiavoni announced their intention to introduce a bill with the same effect. HB 378, however, appeared to pick up steam in March and, after strong bipartisan support in committee and on the floor of the House, the bill went on to the Senate on April 12th.
Back in October, Schiavoni said in a press release:
“This legislation is incredibly important to Ohio’s future. Without access to broadband internet service, businesses can’t reach their customers, students can’t do their homework and workers have difficulty searching for jobs.”
Democrat Ryan Smith and Republican Jack Cera introduced HB 378 with an eye toward economic development in their districts and other rural areas of the state facing the need to diversify their local economies.
“With this bill, we have the opportunity to level the playing field for rural Ohioans when it comes to vital broadband infrastructure,” said Rep. Smith [in October]. “High speed broadband is the only way we can continue growing our economic base by attracting new commercial development and securing a strong labor force, our most valuable resource.”
In Colorado last week, communities held spring elections if they needed to choose elected officials or ask voters to make decisions on local matters. In six rural communities, voters decided to join the almost 120 municipalities and counties around the state that have already voted to opt out of Colorado’s restrictive state law SB 152. Meanwhile, the General Assembly tried to help bring broadband to the state's most rural areas.
A Resounding Yes
In all six towns, the decision to reclaim local telecommunications authority far outpaced the number of voters who voted “no.” In keeping with similar measures we’ve followed during previous elections on this same question, voters want the opportunity to use their own infrastructure to improve connectivity either directly to the public or with a private sector partner. Most communities that put this issue to the voters don’t have a solid plan in place at the time it’s on the ballot, but they understand that opting out of the 2005 law is a necessary step, should they decide in the future to move ahead with a muni or public-private partnership.
The measure always passes and voters usually approve the opt out provision by a wide margin, as was the case on April 3rd. Here’s the tally:
Firestone : Yes 1568 - No 347
Frisco : Yes 634 - No 69
Lake City : Yes 222 - No 18
Limon : Yes 347 - No 92
Lyons : Yes 526 - No 139
Severence : Yes 621 - No 118
Colorado has been abuzz with activity in recent years as local communities reclaim their right to decide how they handle connectivity improvements. The developments have run into resistance from Comcast and other big national ISPs that feel their monopoly threatened. Last fall, Comcast spent close to a million dollars in a failed attempt to defeat a measure in Fort Collins as the city amended its charter to allow it to invest in a municipal network. Before it could take that step, however, the city held a referendum in the fall of 2015 to opt out of SB 152.
In March, Washington state legislators passed HB 2664 and sent it on to Governor Jay Inslee, who signed the bill on March 22nd. In the Port of Ridgefield, where the community has been developing plans for a dark fiber network, the community had advocated for the change. Now that the law will be changing for the better, they’re ready to pursue the partnerships they need to spur economic development and improve connectivity for residents and businesses.
Not A New Idea In The Port Of Ridgefield
Back in 2016, we reported how town officials from the Port of Ridgefield had already started setting aside funds to invest in a 42-mile dark fiber loop. The quality of residential and business Internet access options in the community depended on where a premise was located. The community’s Vice President of Innovation Nelson Holmberg described connectivity in the Port of Ridgefield as a “mixed bag”.
The port already had some fiber in place, as many do for communications between facilities and other uses, and port officials wanted to integrate those assets into the design of the new infrastructure. At the time, state law would only allow "rural" ports to use their fiber in any partnership agreements designed to offer connectivity to people or entities outside of the port districts. The Port of Ridgefield did not qualify as "rural". After advocacy from officials from the Port of Ridgefield and other ports around the state, legislators passed HB 2664, which amends the law to remove the restriction. All ports will soon be able to enter into wholesale arrangements with ISPs interested in leasing dark fiber to offer telecommunications services to the public.
Big Plans In Ridgefield
The North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) released a report in March with several recommendations designed to help the state boost connectivity for residents, businesses, and organizations. NCLM Legislative Counsel Erin Wynia and CTC Technology and Energy President Joanne Hovis authored the report that offers policy changes to encourage smart partnerships.
The report dedicates time describing different public-private partnership models and the elements that make them distinct. In recent years, the term has been used to describe a broad spectrum of arrangements. We've highlighted partnerships in places like Westminster, Maryland, and Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, where both partners invest and share in risk and reward.
The North Carolina Situation
Wynia and Hovis spend time on the gap of coverage in rural areas vs coverage in urban areas. They compare data from the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office and the FCC’s form 477. The authors explain why FCC data is so flawed and provide examples of real people who’s lives are impacted due to access to broadband, or lack of it, in their community.
Fiber is the best option for future-proof, fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Wynia and Hovis compare fiber to other technologies and explain we can’t let hype cloud our long-term thinking. We were happy to supply our map of private ISP fiber availability in North Carolina so readers can see where it’s currently deployed in the state.
Last week we reported about the uncertain position that faced Washington ports might find themselves in, should they decide to bring better connectivity to the areas within and around their service areas. We are pleased to learn that the state legislature saw the light and chose to pass the bill without the proposed harmful Senate amendments. It's good news, but the final bill isn't ideal.
The Problem; The Proposed Solution
Current law allows ports to develop and use fiber optic infrastructure for its own uses both within and beyond their geographic borders; they can only offer wholesale services to other entities within their borders. HB 2664, as introduced, removed the geographic restriction for wholesale services. Communities like Bellingham want to attract ISPs to their cities to compete with incumbents and encourage better prices and services. With the ability to use fiber from the port and possibly integrate it into an expanded network, a city like Bellingham could save time and considerable expense if they wish to invest in Internet infrastructure throughout the community.
Local advocate Jon Humphrey, who has been following this bill and others in his area, noted that the bill had much to do with population density. There had been a change to the original language of bill — the “rural” port requirement, which effectively protected national ISPs from any competition. Humphrey wrote, “This is where the modification of the bill should have ended.”
To The Senate
The bill had no problem passing the House, but when the Senate took it up, they added several amendments that distressed Humphrey and others watching the bill and rooting for it to pass.
We were also concerned about the amendments, including a change that required projects to prioritize unserved and underserved areas. Serving such areas is certainly critical, but this type of language in legislation serves to protect incumbent ISPs from competition rather than to bring high-quality Internet access to areas ignored by those same incumbents. Allowing some level of competition in more densely populated areas helps support projects that reach into less populated unserved and underserved areas.
Senator Janice Bowling has long been a champion for rural broadband in Tennessee. On March 6th, her bill SB 1045 came before the Tennessee Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the members chose not to advance the bill. Once again, big telephone and cable company interests win out over the needs of rural Tennesseans.
Sen. Bowling presented information about the bill at a February 27th meeting of the committee. She introduced SB 1045 last year and it was added and removed from committee hearing schedules several times; HB 1410, the companion House bill from Rep. Weaver, encountered similar treatment. SB 1045 would allow municipal networks and cooperatives to provide broadband service beyond their service areas. Communities that don’t have municipal networks, will regain local authority to invest in Internet infrastructure.
Explaining The Need
In her February 27th presentation, Sen. Bowling described how rural areas in the state are crippled in various ways by the lack of high-quality connectivity. She provided a map that visualizes the disparities between rural areas, communities with fiber optic networks, and urban areas.
She described the need for fiber for economic development:
In rural Tennessee, if we have what is called an industrial park, and we have electricity…you have running water, you have some paved roads, but if you do not have access to fiber at this point, what you have is an electrified cow pasture with running water and walking trails. It is not an industrial park.
PUDs in Washington have been developing fiber optic networks as open access infrastructure for decades. Even though ports have the same authorization to develop broadband infrastructure, their authority is limited. Currently, a port may operate telecommunications facilities for its own uses within and beyond its district, but can only provide wholesale services within the districts. A bill in the legislature would remove the ports' geographic limits and expand their authority, but amendments to the bill might cut into the measure's effectiveness.
Ports Want To Partner
HB 2664, which has worked its way through the state legislature aims to change the current situation by expanding a port’s ability to offer wholesale services outside of its district. The goal is to allow a port to use its infrastructure to partner with a private sector ISP to bring better connectivity to residents, businesses, and other entities in the areas around the port’s district.
HB 2664, which passed the House on February 14th, went on to the Senate and passed there, but was amended to require a project to focus on unserved and underserved areas. In places like Bellingham, where a city has grown up around the port and beyond its boundaries, the community could work with the port to make use of its fiber infrastructure to develop better connectivity for economic development, public savings, and better services for schools and libraries. A restriction forcing the port to prioritize on unserved and underserved communities, however, might thwart a project where DSL or cable now serves the community, even though the service is far below what the FCC considers broadband, expensive, or limited to spotty areas in town.
Putting It All Out There
Another amendment requires that any ports that decide to start using their infrastructure for wholesale service must first establish a business plan and have it reviewed by an independent third party consultant. Recommendations and adjustments associated with the review must all occur transparently. Often private sector partners shy away from working with the public sector when state laws put them in such a potentially vulnerable position.
HB 2664 started off as a promising piece of legislation but amendments may considerably limit its effectiveness.
The Process Continues
Maple syrup, the Green Mountains, and network neutrality. On February 15th, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed Executive Order No. 2-18, the Internet Neutrality in State Procurement, following closely the actions of four other Governors over the past few weeks. You can read the E.O. here.
States Take A Stand
Like similar actions in Montana, New York, Hawaii, and New Jersey, Vermont’s executive order applies to contracts between ISPs and state agencies. The order directs the state Agency of Administration to change its procedures so that any ISP it contracts with doesn't throttle, engage in paid prioritization, or block content. The Agency of Administration has until April 1st to make the changes to Vermont’s procedures.
If a state agency cannot obtain services from an ISP that agrees to comport with network neutrality policy, the state agency can apply for a waiver. The E.O. is silent as to what would allow a waiver; presumably the Agency of Administration would need to establish criteria.
Action In The State Chambers
In early February, the State Senate passed S.289 with only 5 nays and 23 yeas. The executive order Scott recently signed reflected the intention behind the language of S.289 regarding state contracts. When Sen. Virginia Lyons introduced the bill, she described it as a necessary tool to ensure transparency in government. “We don’t want to see information held back or slowed down or deviated in any way when it relates to our state or local government,” Lyons said.