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A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers continues to make slow but steady progress on legislation that would make federal broadband grants tax exempt, providing significant relief for big and small companies alike trying to bridge America’s stubborn digital divide.
U.S. Representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Mike Kelly (R-PA) and Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) recently reintroduced the Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act (BGTTA) in both the House and Senate. The bill would amend IRS code to ensure that funding for broadband deployment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will not be considered taxable income.
“We have made significant strides to ensure that access to high-speed internet is available to more Americans than ever,” Senator Warner said in a statement. “But taxing broadband investment awards diminishes our efforts. This legislation ensures that individuals and businesses are able to reap the benefits of every dollar set aside for broadband expansion and deployment so that we can accomplish our goal of bringing reliable broadband to every corner of Virginia.”
The exemptions included in the bill would also apply retroactively to any qualified grant amounts received in 2021 and 2022.
Hoping to ensure it can actually spend its share of historic broadband funding, Montana lawmakers have tweaked the state’s restrictions on community broadband. However, experts say most of the state law’s pointless restrictions remain intact, undermining state efforts to bring affordable, next-generation broadband access to Montana residents.
Montana’s one of seventeen states that have passed laws banning or restricting municipal broadband networks. The bills are usually ghost written by telecom monopoly lawyers, and in many states either outright prohibit community-owned broadband networks, or are designed to make funding and expanding such networks untenable.
Montana’s specific law, Mon. Code Ann. § 2-17-603, only allow municipalities to build and deliver broadband alternatives if there are no other private companies offering broadband within the municipality’s jurisdiction, or if the municipality can offer “advanced services” that are not available from incumbents.
Covid home schooling and telecommuting needs highlighted the counterproductive nature of such restrictions, driving some states—such as Arkansas and Washington—to dramatically roll back their restrictions.
Earlier this month, a new Colorado bill was introduced that, if passed, would rid the state of a law designed to protect monopoly Internet service providers (ISPs) from competition.
SB-183, titled “Local Government Provision Of Communications Services,” seeks to gut a law Big Telecom pushed state lawmakers to pass in 2005. That law, known as SB-152, prevented any of Colorado’s 272 municipalities from building and operating their own telecommunication infrastructure unless local voters first passed a referendum to “opt out.”
End of ‘the Qwest Law’?
Known also as “the Qwest law,” Qwest (now Lumen but more recently CenturyLink), with the help of Comcast, leaned on legislative allies to pass SB-152 to protect their monopoly profits. On our Community Broadband Bits podcast, Ken Fellman and Jeff Wilson, prominent telecom attorneys, recount how lobbyists for the monopoly ISPs were instrumental in pushing two false, but effective, narratives we’ve seen many times before: that SB-152 only sought to “level the playing field” so that private companies could compete with municipally run networks, and that SB-152 “protected” Coloradoans from irresponsible local governments, as if there were no such things as local elections.
But, if passed, the new proposed legislation (SB-183) – co-sponsored by a bipartisan-ish group of state legislators (10 Democrats and 2 Republicans) – would neuter SB-152 and allow local communities to decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue municipal broadband without needing special permission from the state.
The Birth of the Texas State Broadband Development Office - Episode 515 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Greg Conte, Director of the Texas Broadband Development Office, and ILSR Outreach Team Lead DeAnne Cuellar. The state of Texas finds itself in a common position these days: last year it created a small office that, today, is suddenly faced with dispersing more than a billion dollars in new infrastructure funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.
Greg talks about the challenges of staffing up and addressing the lack of data about where broadband is and isn't as a starting point for future work. He shares the process of developing a minimum viable product for mapping as well as the additional goal of integrating digital equity goals and socioeconomic data into a mapping effort.
Christopher, Greg, and DeAnne then dig into the implications of the new BEAD rules recently clarified by the NTIA, and how to square a mandate not to disciminate against community solutions with a Texas state law which places barriers in front of municipalities. He shares how HB5, passed by the Texas legislature last year, lets nonprofit and for-profit entities apply for funding, but privileges for-profit entities what applications are submitted for the same. The group talks about the balancing act of operating an unequal grant-making marketplace with a charge to efficiently and effectively address the digital divide with historic federal broadband funding.
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.
Freshly proposed legislation in Missouri would prohibit towns and cities from using federal funds to improve broadband access in areas telecom monopolies already claim to serve. It’s just the latest attempt by incumbent telecom giants to ensure that an historic wave of federal broadband funding won’t harm their revenues by boosting local broadband competition.
Missouri SB 1074 - Sponsored by Sen. Dan Hegeman (R., District 12), proclaims that “no federal funds received by the state, political subdivision, city, town, or village shall be expended for the construction of retail broadband internet infrastructure unless the project to be constructed is located in an unserved area or underserved area.” It passed the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee on April 13th.
According to the bill, the Missouri Office of Broadband Infrastructure would certify the project prior to a political subdivision receiving authorization. Before being authorized, the office would be mandated to check with incumbent broadband providers to ensure that they don’t offer service in the specified area.
The bill prohibits federal funding for any projects in areas where a single provider already receives funding to deliver 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds. If it passes, it also allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to submit written challenges to grant applicants within 45 days. The Department of Economic Development would then be tasked with determining the truthfulness of each challenge.
Only if applicants can prove they’re servicing an “unserved” or “underserved” area (which again is defined by flawed FCC Form 477 data that routinely overstates existing coverage and speeds using broadband definitions set at ankle height) will the applications be deemed valid.
But the bill gives incumbent monopolies even greater leverage in the challenge process, by letting them challenge a deployment if an incumbent ISP has “taken affirmative steps to begin the process of construction to provide broadband,” or “has been designated funding through federal programs to support the deployment of broadband” in the targeted areas.
Although we were initially concerned that certain language in New York’s proposed state budget would lock out municipal broadband projects from being able to capitalize on the federal funding bonanza contained in the American Rescue Plan Act and forthcoming money in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bill that was ultimately signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul was amended and has some golden nuggets for municipal broadband.
The recently enacted $220 billion budget bill includes $1 billion for the state’s ConnectALL initiative, which Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office calls “the largest ever investment in New York's 21st century infrastructure (that) will leverage public and private investments to connect New Yorkers in rural and urban areas statewide to broadband and establish the first municipal broadband program of its kind in the nation.”
Cultivating a Municipal Broadband Ecosystem
In part MMM of the budget bill, it establishes a “municipal assistance program … to provide grant funding to municipalities, state and local authorities ... to plan and construct infrastructure necessary to provide broadband services.”
Municipal grant recipients, the bill says, will be required to build broadband infrastructure to “facilitate projects that, at a minimum, provide reliable Internet service with consistent speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for download and at least 20 (Mbps) for upload.” That shouldn’t be a problem as most municipal broadband projects use fiber optics that can deliver far more than that.
How much of the ConnectALL money will be allocated for the municipal grant fund has not yet been determined. But, community broadband advocates should not lose sight of the significance of the broadband ecosystem that is being cultivated in conjunction with other parts of the budget bill.
With an unprecedented amount of federal funds to build broadband networks flowing into individual states, lawmakers in some states are doing the bidding of the big monopoly Internet Service Providers and potentially blowing a once-in-a-generation chance to invest in the locally-accountable infrastructure that offers the best chance to bridge the broadband gap for millions of families once and for all.
Two weeks ago we wrote about the anti-competition broadband legislation making its way through the State Legislatures in Illinois and New York as state lawmakers across the nation establish high-speed Internet grant programs.
That trend looks like it’s continuing in Michigan where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature recently reached a deal to pass a nearly $5 billion spending bill.
While the “Building Michigan Together Plan” is being “celebrated” by the governor’s office as a way to “grow the economy, create jobs, and benefit families in every region of the state,” the main supplemental spending bill, known as Senate Bill 565 (SB 565), may sink some hope community broadband advocates have for leveraging the windfall of federal funds the Great Lakes State is getting from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the forthcoming funds in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA).
Protecting Incumbents from Competition
Even as high-speed Internet access is widely considered a basic utility akin to electricity and clean water, there are still 17 states with preemption laws that either ban publicly-owned broadband networks or have barriers that make it all but impossible for municipalities to compete with monopoly Internet Service Providers. This, despite the major incumbents having received billions in taxpayer subsidies over the years and having failed to deliver universally reliable and affordable connectivity.
However, as it has become increasingly clear that the private market alone is not going to solve America’s connectivity crisis, last year two states (Arkansas and Washington) rolled back their preemption laws that were protecting monopoly incumbent providers from competition, allowing local and regional governmental entities to build the telecommunications infrastructure their residents need.
Now, one Nebraska lawmaker has recently filed a bill that, if passed, would significantly remove his state’s current barriers to municipal broadband. Nebraska State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha filed LB916 last week with the state legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
As it stands now, according to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), Nebraska “generally prohibits agencies or political subdivisions of the state, other than public power utilities, from providing wholesale or retail broadband, Internet, telecommunications or cable service. Public power utilities are permanently prohibited from providing such services on a retail basis, and they can sell or lease dark fiber on a wholesale basis only under severely limited conditions. For example, a public power utility cannot sell or lease dark fiber at rates lower than the rates incumbents are charging in the market in question.”
Bill to Let Local Communities Decide on Broadband
This past Friday Congress finally passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation includes $65 billion to boost high-speed Internet connectivity – “the largest (federal) investment in broadband deployment ever,” as noted by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. This is an historic piece of legislation that includes many of the things we wanted to see in it and we believe it will significantly help solve broadband challenges for many who have not yet been well connected.
There are two major buckets of broadband money that will be made available to states and tribal governments: $42.5 billion for the deployment of infrastructure, which will be mostly aimed at rural communities, with the rest going toward digital inclusion efforts.
While we have not yet gone through the final version with a fine-toothed comb, the broadband portion of the infrastructure bill appears to be identical to what was in the bipartisan Senate version of the bill, which we previously wrote about here.
Rural America Biggest Beneficiary
The $42.5 billion portion of the bill will be allocated to the States in the form of block grants under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
With American Rescue Plan funds flowing into state government coffers, about a third of the nation’s 50 states have announced what portion of their Rescue Plan dollars are being devoted to expanding access to high-speed Internet connectivity.
The federal legislation included $350 billion for states to spend on water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure, though everything we have seen suggests that the vast majority of that will not go to broadband. There is also another $10 billion pot of rescue plan funds, called the Capital Projects Fund, that mostly must be used to expand access to broadband.
Laboratories of Broadband-ification
As expected, each state is taking their own approach. California is making a gigantic investment in middle-mile infrastructure and support for local Internet solutions while Maryland is making one of the biggest investments in municipal broadband of any other state in the nation. And although Colorado does not prioritize community-driven initiatives, state lawmakers there have earmarked $20 million for Colorado’s two federally-recognized Indian tribes to deploy broadband infrastructure with another $15 million devoted to boosting telehealth services in the state.
Undoubtedly, individual states’ funding priorities vary. Some states may be relying on previously allocated federal investments to boost broadband initiatives and/or have been persuaded the private sector alone will suffice in solving its connectivity challenges. And in some states, such as Illinois, Minnesota, and Maine, lawmakers have prioritized using state funds to support broadband expansion efforts while other states may be waiting on the infrastructure bill now making its way through Congress before making major broadband funding decisions.
As of this writing, 17 states have earmarked a portion of their Rescue Plan money (totaling about $7.6 billion) to address the digital divide within their borders. Those states are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.