Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) continues to move forward in administering the single biggest federal investment to expand high-speed Internet access in U.S. history, each state and U.S. territory is wrestling with how to best spend the windfall as they lay out their Five Year Action Plans and Initial Proposals necessary to claim their portion of the $42.5 billion BEAD program.
One major barrier to providing universal access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet service–long recognized by ILSR, telecom experts, and a growing number of ordinary citizens–are the monopoly-friendly preemption laws that either outright ban or erect insurmountable barriers to building publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks, aka municipal broadband.
Preemption in the BEAD Era
Currently, 17 states have such preemption laws, most of which have filed their Five Year Action Plans and/or their Initial Proposals. In each of those states, at the behest of Big Cable and Telecom incumbents, state lawmakers have erected legislative barriers to municipal broadband to protect the monopoly players from competition, which is at the very heart of why the digital divide exists in the first place and why tens of millions of Americans suffer from the slower speeds and higher costs that go hand in hand with monopoly service.
Decorah, Iowa is moving forward on a long-percolating plan to expand the city’s core fiber ring to provide affordable broadband access to long-neglected residents and businesses.
While the project has been discussed for years, local officials tell ISLR the project gained renewed momentum during peak COVID, and is creeping closer to launch.
Contracts are still being finalized as the city hopes to spend somewhere around $12 to $15 million to deliver fiber to all 3,000 potential subscriber locations. The full project would take about three years to deliver fiber to all 7,740 city residents, with the first subscribers potentially coming online this fall.
“Decorah has been in pursuit of fiber to the premises for the last 8 to 9 plus years and we finally have broken through some of our challenges on how to get to the finish line,” Chopper Albert, Decorah IT Director told ISLR.
According to Albert, Decorah’s recent progress is thanks in part to new City Manager Travis Goedken, who has long advocated for expanding the city’s existing fiber network to drive affordable fiber access citywide.
New City Management Team Pushes Forward
Since 2013 the city has owned an 11-mile core fiber network, dubbed the Decorah MetroNet. MetroNet was born out of frustration after a major flood in 2008 across much of Iowa resulted in prolonged communications network outages.
MetroNet (not to be confused with the Indiana-based ISP that goes by the same name) currently provides access to Luther College and 18 additional government buildings and anchor institutions.
After years of strategizing, Waterloo, Iowa officials announced in February that they were moving forward with their plan to create a new utility aimed at delivering affordable fiber to every last city resident. While the resulting network is still very much in the planning and construction phase, officials this month released a new website for the project revealing service pricing.
According to the Waterloo telecommunications board, locals will have access to symmetrical 300 megabit per second (Mbps) service, symmetrical 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) service, and symmetrical 10 Gbps service for $50 a month, $70 a month, and $110 a month, respectively. The offerings will see no long-term contracts or usage caps.
Unlike many municipalities, Waterloo is also offering both phone and television bundles. Phone and TV service bundled with 1 Gbps service will cost locals $180 per month, while phone and TV service bundled with 10 Gbps service will be $224 per month.
Andy Van Fleet, chairperson of the board of trustees, tells the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier that the pricing is notably lower than the prices charged by regional cable monopoly Mediacom. Van Fleet told the paper that Mediacom currently charges him $129 a month for 300 Mbps service, plus the added costs incurred by technically unnecessary usage caps and overage fees.
Join us Wednesday, July 12th at 4pm ET for the latest episode of the Connect This! Show.
Co-hosts Christopher Mitchell (ILSR) and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) will be joined by regular guests Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting) and Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber) to talk about all the recent broadband news that's fit to print – and probably a few things not fit for print but worth discussing anyways.
The interactive livestream is always chock full of humorous observations and insightful broadband commentary, including previous episodes that remain relevant as states and communities are putting together their digital equity plans and gearing up for federal BEAD funds to build new broadband networks.
Back in December Christopher recalled how things went when Uncle Sam doled out federal infrastructure dollars in 2009. There's lots of excitement (and rightly so) around the recent announcement of how much each state and U.S. territory will get from the $42.5 billion BEAD program. However, this short clip (below) from Episode 60 is a good reminder that this time around we ought to take what the big telecom and cable companies say with a huge grain of salt so we don’t blow this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand broadband access only to have taxpayer watchdog groups railing years from now about wasteful government spending because we took the word of monopoly incumbents at face value.
As California aims to boost broadband competition and Los Angeles County pursues what could be the biggest municipal broadband network ever built, local activists say they’ve made some meaningful recent inroads on both improving broadband mapping, and regulatory reform that should aid the equitable deployment of modern, affordable access.
Recently, inroads have been made on fixing long-broken California cable franchise law. In the early aughts, cablecos (and telcos pushing into the TV business) successfully lobbied for state-level “cable franchise reform” laws they promised would dramatically lower prices. In reality, such bills were often little more than legislative wishlists crafted by telecom giants.
Often these state-level replacements for local franchise agreements eroded legal regulatory authority, eliminated long standing requirements for uniform broadband and TV deployment, and in some states–like Wisconsin–even acted to strip away local consumer protections and eminent domain rights. Warnings by academics on this front were widely ignored.
Seventeen years after its passage, California activists say that California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) was no exception.
The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) insists that the 17 state laws that hamper nationwide community broadband deployments won’t delay a massive looming infusion of infrastructure broadband subsidies. But one industry group isn’t so sure.
BroadbandNow, a website dedicated to tracking the U.S. broadband industry, issued a report claiming that state restrictions on community broadband networks could delay the delivery of more than $42.45 billion in BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment) grants made possible by the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Such bills, often ghost written by the telecom industry by policy and lobbying intermediaries, often limit the construction or financing of community broadband networks, even in unserved areas that regional telecom monopolies have long neglected.
Covid’s home education and telecommuting boom highlighted the restrictive and often counterproductive nature of such bills, leading two states — Arkansas and Washington — to remove the barriers. And in Colorado earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183 into law that eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.
Colorado state leaders have voted to eliminate long-criticized state barriers to municipal broadband networks. Community broadband advocates hope it will be a beacon for other states eager to bring more reliable and affordable high-speed Internet service to a market long dominated by monopoly providers.
The Colorado decision, made after years of citizen backlash to the counterproductive restrictions, is the latest inflection point in a retreat away from monopoly-backed state laws stifling creative efforts to bridge the digital divide.
On May 1, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183. The new law formally eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.
“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter said of the decision. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”
Colorado state leaders say the repeal puts them in a prime position to capitalize on numerous digital equity programs designed to address Colorado’s digital divide, as well as the more than $42 billion in broadband subsidies soon to be distributed courtesy of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
“With large amounts of federal funding coming from the IIJA bill, we wanted communities to be ready to receive this money,” Colorado Representative Brianna Titone told ILSR.
Last year, Governor Polis signed an executive order formally setting a goal of connecting 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027. Colorado state leaders have previously stated they expect their share of IIJA/BEAD funding to be between $400 and $700 million; money that can now be used more broadly on a diverse array of creative broadband solutions.
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.