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The Ohio Senate attached an amendment to the state's budget bill last week which would place significant restrictions on the establishment of new community broadband solutions. It would also, if passed in its current form, place substantial barriers on the operation and expansion of existing municipal networks and other publicly owned and operated projects.
Cities across Ohio have expanded Internet infrastructure in thoughtful, forward-looking ways. These municipal networks have created local government savings, increased speeds, promoted service competition, and powered economic development.
Some cities have specifically addressed the affordability gap in cities, where many residents have been left behind in a broken market where large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have underbuilt networks, leaving hundreds of thousands of broadband-hungry Ohioans in the digital dust.
This fact sheet [pdf] outlines the many long-term benefits that municipal broadband projects have brought to the state. For instance:
Well, they did it. The Ohio Senate passed its two-year $75-billion budget bill yesterday, which included an amendment that effectively bans the creation of municipal broadband networks without much in the way of public debate.
If the amendment contained in the Senate’s budget survives the budget process, it would make Ohio the first state in a decade to erect barriers to the establishment and expansion of municipal broadband networks.
The vote was along party lines, with 25 GOP State Senators voting in favor of the Senate budget bill and the chamber’s eight Democrats voting against it. With the House having passed its budget bill in April, now the two legislative bodies have until June 30 to negotiate the differences.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the House and Senate budget bills agree on about 60 percent of what’s contained in the Senate spending proposal. Where the House and Senate disagree is on the size of a state income tax cut, school funding, access to subsidized childcare, and broadband.
Ohio on Cusp of Municipal Broadband Ban
When the Senate version of the state budget bill was unveiled earlier this week, it included an amendment that saddles community-owned projects with an array of conditions designed to prevent, stifle, and discourage political subdivisions from building and operating networks that meet the connectivity challenges of its residents. It also takes aim at existing projects which enhance the resiliency of regional communications, telehealth, and public safety operations.
Among the most pernicious consequences would be that it only allows for municipal broadband networks to be built in “unserved” areas of the state, defined as geographic regions where residents do not have access to “broadband service capable of speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and at least 3 Mbps upstream.”
The Ohio State Senate is set to vote today on the state budget bill that includes an amendment which, if signed into law, would be a major setback for municipal broadband projects in the Buckeye State and protect the big incumbent Internet Service Providers from competition.
If passed and signed into law it would make Ohio the first state in a decade to erect barriers to the establishment and expansion of municipal broadband networks. This is a surprising and disappointing move, especially for families who have spent the last year experiencing firsthand the poor Internet connectivity that comes with a broadband market dominated by monopoly providers with no incentive to put the interests of the public ahead of shareholder returns.
When the Senate version of the state budget bill was unveiled earlier this week, it included an amendement with an array of conditions designed to prevent, stifle, and discourage cities from following through with any plan for a city-run network to meet the connectivity challenges of its residents.
The first is a provision that would only allow for municipal broadband networks to be built in “unserved” areas of the state, defined as geographic regions where residents do not have access to “broadband service capable of speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and at least 3 Mbps upstream.”
But a recent Ohio Broadband Strategy report released in 2019 under the direction of Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted pegged the number of Ohioans without access to broadband at just around 1 million. According to the independent broadband tracking firm BroadbandNow, which ranks Ohio 24th in the nation on the broadband access scale, as of June 2021 there were 618,000 Ohio residents who did not have access to broadband with speeds of 25/3 or faster, which means that approximately 94 percent of Ohioans have access to wired broadband with speeds of 25/3 or faster. Restricting municipal networks to only those households with no service whatsoever would effectively preclude new networks in large parts of the state.
Michigan broadband package repeals law prohibiting state grants from going to government entities
Montana Legislature duplicates federal limitations against schools and library self-constructing networks
U.S. House Republicans bill would give USDA authority over rural broadband, in place of FCC
The State Scene
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive on Wednesday establishing the Michigan High-Speed Internet (MIHI) Office, a new state office tasked with developing a strategy to make high-speed Internet more accessible to Michiganders.
Gov. Whitmer has argued that more than $2.5 billion in potential economic benefit is left unrealized each year due to a lack of Internet access across the state. MIHI will be housed inside the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO). Speaking of the new office, LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin said, “We need to make major investments to support digital inclusion and this office will be focused on leveraging every dollar available through the American Recovery Plan and other federal programs,” reports WILX.
Michigan lawmakers are moving to answer Corbin’s call and recently proposed a $400 million one-time allocation of incoming federal relief funds to the newly created MIHI to work toward expanding access to broadband. With the funds, LEO would be tasked with maintaining a statewide broadband grant program, the Connecting Michigan Communities Broadband Grant.
Florida Legislature rewrites utility pole bill to include language backed by municipal electric utilities
North Carolina’s County Broadband Authority Act includes clause drawing criticism from electric co-ops
Oklahoma Governor signs mapping bill, vetoes measure adding Tribal representation to state broadband council
The State Scene
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.'"
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:
On Monday, a new bill introduced into the Arkansas State Legislature has the potential, if passed, to remove almost all existing barriers to municipal broadband in the state. SB 74 was introduced in the 93rd General Assembly, Regular Session 2021 by State Senators Breanne Davis and Ricky Hill and their counterparts Representatives Brian Evans and Deann Vaught.
The legislation would substantially amend the state’s Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which in most scenarios bans government entities from building and owning networks and delivering services to residents in pursuit of promoting competition and bringing Internet access to unconnected parts of the state.
SB 74 keeps an existing ban on providing basic local exchange service in place (i.e. telephone), but otherwise allows municipalities to build, buy, and operate network infrastructure to deliver digital voice, broadband, data, and wireless telecommunications service to anyone in the state.
Slow Progress in Recent Years
Currently in Arkansas, municipalities are allowed to build or partner with private companies to build broadband infrastructure, but only if they acquire a grant or loan to do so and only do so in unserved areas. When policy veterans last commented on these particulars of the legislative landscape in 2019, they were worried that such geographic and financing restrictions would effectively preclude new networks, and they were right.
SB 74 eliminates these two restrictions, which represents a significant step forward. It also adds consolidated utility districts to the list of eligible entities, removes the requirement to file a public notice, and dramatically expands the emergency services clause to include healthcare services, education, and “other essential services.”
Municipal broadband networks already serve more than 500 communities across the country, but some states are trying to keep that number from growing. Nineteen states have established legal barriers or even outright bans on publicly owned networks, according to well-respected communications law firm Baller Stokes & Lide.
These state laws, often enacted at the behest of large telecom monopolies, slow the development of community owned connectivity in various ways. From Alabama to Wisconsin, states have implemented everything from direct prohibitions on municipal networks to oppressive restrictions and requirements that limit competition.
The outlook for municipal connectivity may be starting to improve though, despite incorrect reports that state-level broadband preemption increased over the past year. Baller Stoke & Lide’s list of states with restrictions on municipal broadband investment actually shrunk this year from 20 states to 19 — a result of downgrading Colorado’s SB 152 from bonafide barrier to mere annoyance. Still, barriers to community networks remain in more than a third of all states, leaving millions of Americans unconnected and tens of millions more without local Internet choice.
Bans, Blocks, and Burdens
Common approaches to preempting municipal broadband networks range from straightforward bans to confusing financial restrictions and complicated legal requirements. While some states have established one main barrier to community broadband, many more have adopted a bird’s nest of regulations that kill any possibility of municipal connectivity, if only because of the legal uncertainty created by complex and vague laws.
It’s mid-May and while some states’ legislatures are still in session, other’s have already debated new legislation, voted, and adopted new laws. This week, we talk with one Senator from Arkansas who, along with her colleagues, are interested in bringing better broadband to rural areas of her state, Breanne Davis.
During the 2019 session, she introduced SB 150, which was ultimately adopted. The bill makes slight changes in Arkansas law that prevent local communities from developing infrastructure to be used for broadband. She and Christopher discuss why she and her colleagues decided it was time to ask lawmakers for the change after years of depending on large ISPs who weren’t living up to promises to expand broadband in rural areas.
Christopher and Senator Davis discuss some of the details of the bill and address the amendments that changed a broad piece of legislation to a targeted law that allows local communities to apply for federal grant funding. She explains some of the reasons for the amendments and how those changes fit into the vision she and her colleagues in the legislature have for the future of Arkansas.
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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.
Two pieces of recently introduced legislation in North Carolina’s General Assembly show a potential to help grow broadband in rural areas. In the past, state lawmakers have kept publicly owned Internet networks tightly reined in to protect cable and telephone monopolies operating in the state, but the restrictions may be loosening as state leaders recognize the need for more options.
The FIBER NC Act
The long list and leadership positions of sponsors attached to H 431 indicate that the FIBER NC Act shows promise. It’s four primary sponsors include the Rules Committee Chair and a Finance Committee Chair, which also bodes well for the future of H 431. Our friends at the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) tell us that they expect a similar companion bill with equal muscle behind it to come from the Senate.
The FIBER Act would change existing barriers to allow municipalities and local government the authority to invest in publicly owned broadband infrastructure in order to work with private sector partners. The bill also includes procedures that local governments must follow if they decide to pursue a public-private partnership, including conducting a feasibility study, and proper notification and execution of meetings. Within the language of H 431, the authors include specific instructions for publication and advertisement that describe the opportunity to lease the infrastructure.
Bipartisan support of the bill and the fact that almost 50 House Members, in addition to the four sponsors, have signed on add to the optimism that H 431 has a bright future. Folks at NCLM have expressed strong support for the bill and are galvanizing constituents to encourage elected officials to move H 431 forward.
It’s first stop is the Committee on Energy and Public Utilities. If it passes there, H 431 will move on to Finance and then to the Rules Committee.
Untying Cooperative Hands