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As Mayors must concern themselves with everything from public safety and health to the development of the local economy and the provision of essential municipal services, they tend to have a particular focus on the infrastructure necessary to support it all, amid a cacophony of competing interests.
Over the summer, having reached consensus on the fundamental importance of “the digital infrastructure of tomorrow,” a particular focus of the United States Conference of Mayors 88th National Annual Meeting was to issue a resolution declaring the necessity of “Preserving Local Public Rights-of-Way and Regulatory Authority to Most Effectively Deploy 5G Broadband Access and Bridge the Digital Divide during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
The Mayors’ resolution comes in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC's) 2018 preemption of local governments’ authority to regulate 5G infrastructure in their cities.
At the heart of the regulatory debate: local governments’ ability to determine the amount of fees to charge mobile carriers that want to place 5G equipment in Rights-of-Way. In addition to putting limits on those fees, the FCC Order also sets strict timelines by which cities and towns must respond to carrier applications. The FCC decision, issued over the objections of industry observers and policy experts, essentially eliminates local communities’ ability to negotiate in order to protect their own Rights-of-Way and the poles, traffic lights, and other potential structures within those Rights-of-Way.
Preempting Local Authority
Order in the Virtual Court: FairlawnGig Issues RFQ for Government Ring Expansion into Summit County, Ohio
Local governments have been creative in finding ways to conduct work remotely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, conducting city council meetings via Zoom or congregating in football stadiums to vote on referendums. Soon, Summit County, Ohio and the city of Akron will be better equipped to do similar work. Both have passed council measures approving an agreement with the neighboring city of Fairlawn to expand the latter’s municipal network southeast, and create a fiber ring connecting county- and city-level criminal justice and public safety buildings. The Summit County Criminal Justice Technology Project, which will be complete by the end of the year, is designed to facilitate court proceedings and public safety work remotely in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A Burnin' Ring of Fiber
FairlawnGig, the municipal network run by the city of the same name, has issued a Request for Qualifications to design and build the network extension it will then manage. The ring will consist of 20 miles of mostly 864-strand fiber (with some places getting 24-strand additions or upgrades) and the $6.5 million cost will be paid for by Summit County (the money is coming from CARES Act funds).
Summit County Executive Ilene said of the investment:
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how government operates and delivers services. As we begin to adjust to life with the virus, we have to consider how to safely and efficiently meet the needs of our community. This project prioritizes both safety and efficiency.
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, is currently experiencing firsthand the consequences of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC's) 2018 preemption of local governments’ authority to regulate 5G infrastructure in their cities. With its initial handful of applications for new small cell transmitters just submitted to the county board by Verizon under the new rules, local officials are grappling with a host of limitations — including fee caps, shorter timing windows, and right of way exemptions — which outline clearly a problem more and more communities will face in the coming months and years.
Less Say, Less Money
We pointed out when the FCC handed down the order in the fall of 2018 that it represented a significant giveaway to wireless carriers while placing additional restrictions and financial burdens on local regulators, most of which are county boards and city departments. Among the most troublesome of the order’s provisions are new 60- and 90-day approval windows for the installation of infrastructure on existing and new wireless facilities, a limitation to annual fee scales for small cell sites set between $100-250, a right now enjoyed by wireless providers to place infrastructure on municipally owned poles and traffic lights, and a rule that says if regulating authorities don’t get to an application within 60 days it automatically becomes approved. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the fee cap in a ruling last Wednesday.
Comcast is the second Internet Service Provider (ISP) suing the mayor and metro government of Nashville, Tennessee (pop. 680,000) to stop a new ordinance to give streamline access to utility poles in the city, reports Cnet.com news.
Comcast’s October lawsuit over the Google Fiber-supported One Touch Make Ready ordinance (OTMR) comes on the heels of AT&T's legal action in late September. We wrote about AT&T’s lawsuit shortly after the filing.
Cnet.com reported that most of the utility poles are owned by Nashville Electric Service (NES) or AT&T, but Comcast has wires on many poles and has control over how these wires are handled. “When Google Fiber wants to attach new wires to a pole, it needs to wait for Comcast to move its wire to make room, and this is where the new ordinance becomes controversial.”
Comcast’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee, contends the AT&T-owned poles fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and not the city, and that Nashville Metro Council lacked authority to regulate NES poles, according to a story in the Tennessean newspaper. The telecommunications carrier is asking for a permanent injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinance.
Comcast reproduces AT&T's argument in Nashville - that the poles are within federal jurisdiction so the city does not have the authority to enforce such an ordinance.
Reverse Preemption In Louisville
At a recent WRAL TechWire event, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief of staff Blair Levin urged North Carolina communities to seek a repeal of a state law that restricts local telecommunications authority, reports WRAL TechWire.
“When the new General Assembly returns to Raleigh, tell the assembly to tear down the law that prevents faster, cheaper broadband,” Levin said in a keynote address at the WRAL TechWire Executive Exchange in Wilson, N.C. Wilson's municipal Greenlight network is among the first in the nation to offer high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access.
Currently, North Carolina law HB 129 prevents Wilson from expanding its Internet access service area beyond Wilson County and discourages other communities from investing in similar infrastructure. HB 129 was the subject of a legal battle when the city of Wilson (pop. 50,000) wanted to provide Internet access to neighboring Pinetops (pop. 1,400) and other communities beyond the limitations of the state law. They challenged the law, as did Chattanooga, which faced slightly different restrictions in Tennessee.
In February of 2015, the FCC ordered that Wilson could serve communities beyond the county borders, but both states appealed, challenging the agency's authority. The federal appeals court reversed that ruling in August 2016.
Under the provisions of the North Carolina law, Wilson could lose it's exemption to offer service at all, but by temporarily providing free telephone and Internet access to Pinetops, they protect their exemption. Two state legislators have vowed to take action and try to get the state law changed during the next legislative session.
This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Joining Christopher Mitchell are Will Aycock and Suzanne Coker Craig. They discuss the situation in Greenlight and Pinetops as well as the importance of connectivity during the recent hurricane. Listen to this episode here.
Suzanne Coker Craig: We just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. As many of our listeners know, in February 2015, the FCC issued an order that preempted restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The FCC's order allowed Greenlight, the municipal network developed by Wilson's electric utility, to expand its Internet access, telephone and video services outside of Wilson County. Pinetops, a small community of about 1300 residents, was connected soon after the FCC ruling and the community, its businesses and residents, finally received the high quality connectivity they needed to step into the 21st century. This last August, the order was reversed by the 6th Circuit for the US Court of Appeals. Wilson had to stop offering service to Pinetops or risk losing the exemption to the state law. In other words, stop serving Pinetops or the state would shut them down completely. In this interview, Chris talks with Will Aycock, Greenlight's General Manager, and later, Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops business owner and town commissioner. Will describes a situation in the area, especially since the onset of Hurricane Matthew, which has hit Pinetops hard, and how Wilson found a way to continue to help its neighbor. Suzanne describes what it was like before the community had high quality services from Greenlight. She also describes how important the services are for the town, and how Greenlight has gone above and beyond to help the people of Pinetops. Now, here's Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner.
The town of Pinetops, North Carolina, has a six-month reprieve.
On October 20, the Wilson City Council voted to continue to provide telephone and Internet access to customers outside of Wilson County, which includes Pinetops, for an additional six months at no charge. As we reported earlier, the City Council had been backed into a corner by state law, which would force them to discontinue Wilson’s municipal Greenlight service, or risk losing their exemption entirely.
In August, the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the FCC decision to preempt North Carolina’s state law that prevented Greenlight from serving nearby Pinetops. When Hurricane Matthew struck Pinetops, however, the Wilson community could not fathom piling yet another burden - lack of high-quality Internet access - on the struggling rural community.
"We Cannot Imagine..."
After examining the law and reaching out to state leaders, Wilson’s elected officials chose to provide services at no charge while state legislators work to change the current harmful state law. Once again, a community that offers publicly owned connectivity proves that there is more to the venture than profit. From a Wilson press release:
"Our broadband utility has always been about bringing critical infrastructure to people, improving lives and communities,” said Grant Goings, Wilson City Manager. “We cannot imagine being forced to disconnect people and businesses that need our services. We are thankful that, in partnership with our phone service provider, we have identified a way to keep folks connected while Rep. Martin and Sen. Brown work to fix this broken State law."
This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.
H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.
H.R. Trostle: Hi.
Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.
When big corporate incumbent providers fear a hint of competition from a new entrant, they pull out all the stops to quash any potential threat. One of the first lines of offense involves the courts. Iowa City now leases its fiber to Cedar Rapids based ImOn and to stop it, Mediacom is reprocessing an old argument. It didn't work the first time, but they are going for it anyway; this is another example of how cable companies try to hobble competitors; just stalling can be a "win."
A Lawsuit In Search Of An Offense
Mediacom has a franchise agreement with Iowa City to offer cable television services and it also provides subscribers the option to purchase Internet access and telephone services. As most of our readers are attuned to these matters, you probably already understand that just any old cable TV provider can’t come into Iowa City and set up shop. State and local law require them to obtain a franchise agreement, which often includes additional obligations in exchange for access to a community’s potential customer base.
According to a 2015 Gazette article, Mediacom provides annual payments for use of the public right-of-way, operates a local office, and provides free basic cable services to local schools and government buildings. These types of commitments are commonplace as part of franchise agreements and are small sacrifices compared to the potential revenue available to Mediacom.
ImOn started offering Internet access and phone services to Iowa City downtown businesses in January but the company does not offer cable TV services like it does in other Iowa municipalities. ImOn doesn't have a franchise agreement with Iowa City but Mediacom says that it should. They argue that, because ImOn has built a system capable of offering video service, it should also have to obtain a franchise agreement.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle dismissed the case, stating in a nutshell:
In our last Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher and I discussed the August 10th U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 ruling against state barriers. We mentioned Harold Feld’s article about the ruling posted on his website. In keeping with most matters of importance in the municipal Internet network field, Harold expertly sums up the history of the case, the arguments, and what the outcome could mean for the future.
Feld gets down into the crux of the argument that won over the three judges in the Sixth Circuit - the need to establish if it is states or federal agencies that make the decisions regarding whether or not local governments can provide telecommunications.
Determining the answer was a multi-step process and Feld explains how the FCC came to the conclusion that they had the authority to preempt the laws and the states' arguments against it. This was, after all, a test case and Feld describes why the FCC chose Chattanooga and Wilson.
Read more on Feld’s Tales of the Sausage Factory, where he speculates on how the big incumbent providers will react to their win and what is next for municipal network advocates. From Harold:
As with most things worth doing in policy land, it’s disheartening that it’s an uphill fight to get to rational policy. The idea that states should tell local people in local communities that they can’t invest in their own local infrastructure runs against traditional Republican ideas about small government and local control as it does against traditional Democratic ideas about the responsibility of government to provide basic services and promote competition. But that’s how things work in public policy sometimes. We can either give up and take what we get, or keep pushing until we change things for the better.