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Now that the fight over federal funding to expand broadband access has been largely settled with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), states and local communities are preparing to put those funds to work.
The Biden Administration had initially hoped to tip the scales in favor of building publicly-owned broadband networks as the best way to boost local (more affordable) Internet choice, and inject competition into a market dominated by monopoly incumbents. And while the Treasury rules on how Rescue Plan money can be spent does give states and local governments the ability to do just that, the rules for how the IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program can be spent have yet to be finalized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the agency in charge of allocating those funds to the states.
Predictably, the big monopoly incumbents are focusing their lobbying efforts on state lawmakers as states funnel those federal funds into state broadband grant programs. In some states, Big Telco is getting the desired result: the shunning of publicly-owned network proposals to shield monopoly providers from competition. Of course, we expected some states – especially those with preemption laws that either erect barriers to municipal broadband or outright ban such networks – to shovel most of their federal broadband funds to the big incumbents, even though they have a long track record of over-promising and under-delivering.
But while we might expect Florida and Texas to favor the private sector and stealthily move to shut out projects that are publicly-owned, we’re surprised that the first place it’s happening is actually Illinois and New York.
Illinois Lawmakers Thumb Nose at Federal Law
Welcome to In Our View. From time to time, we use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.
As federal funds to expand high-speed Internet access began to flow to states and local communities through the American Rescue Plan Act, and with billions more coming under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Big Telecom is beginning to mount its expected opposition campaign designed to discourage federal (and state) decision-makers from prioritizing the building of publicly-owned networks.
Predictably, a centerpiece of this anti-municipal broadband campaign is the trotting out of well-worn - and thoroughly debunked - talking points, arguing that federal funding rules should not “encourage states to favor entities like non-profits and municipalities when choosing grant winners” because of their “well-documented propensity to fail at building and maintaining complex networks over time.” That’s what USTelecom, a trade organization representing big private Internet Service Providers (including the monopolies) wrote in a memo sent last week to President Biden, the FCC, cabinet secretaries, House and Senate members, Tribal leaders, as well as state broadband offices.
Broadband was on the ballot as voters went to the polls for Election Day in many areas. Here’s a quick run-down of what happened.
The Colorado state law (SB-152) that bans local governments in the Centennial State from establishing municipal broadband service suffered another defeat at the ballot box. Since the law was passed nearly two decades ago, more than 150 Colorado communities have opted out. That number continues to grow and we can now add the town of Windsor to the list of municipalities in the state who have voted to restore local Internet choice.
At the polls yesterday, 77 percent of Windsor voters said yes to Ballot Question 3A, which asked “shall the Town of Windsor, without increasing taxes by this measure, be authorized to provide high-speed Internet services (advanced services), telecommunications services, and/or cable television services … either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners?”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed Internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate yesterday. The full text of the bill, posted on U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema’s (D-Arizona) website, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.
For those of us who favor local Internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Let’s start with …
Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the states to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the FCC for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.
In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”
And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”
Between the U.S. Treasury clarifying that American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds are eligible to be spent on middle-mile infrastructure and the U.S. Senate’s proposed infrastructure bill directing NTIA to establish a $1 billion grant program to support the deployment of middle-mile networks, federal assistance aiming to improve middle-mile access is imminent.
Cities and states across the U.S. have already committed portions of their federal relief funds to boost access to middle-mile infrastructure. City officials of Brownsville, Texas approved a plan in July to use $19.5 million of ARP funds to construct a 95-mile-long middle-mile broadband network. In Suffolk, Virginia, city council members set aside $5 million of relief funds for the first phase of a regional project to construct an open access, middle-mile fiber ring.
The Governor and State Legislature of California recently settled on a $3.25 billion agreement to build statewide public middle-mile infrastructure, “one of the largest state investments in public fiber in the history of the United States,” reports Ernesto Falcon for EFF.
The sudden surge in middle-mile investment may bring about confusion over what middle-mile infrastructure is and give rise to questions over the necessity of such investments. A new fact sheet from the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) clarifies commonly held misbeliefs about investing in public middle-mile infrastructure. Read CSAC’s new fact sheet here [pdf].
Investments in Public Middle-Mile Needed to Confront Monopolies
New Jersey establishes state committee to strategize deployment of community broadband networks
Louisiana Senate amends bill, opening state grant program to municipally-owned providers
Washington laws expanding municipal authority to provide retail service take effect
The State Scene
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, on July 7, enacted legislation (A.B. 850) establishing a new state committee tasked with evaluating where community broadband networks should be established across the state, by surveying areas where public networks would be most feasible to deploy.
The 19-member Broadband Access Study Commission “will consider the logistics of deploying community broadband networks and report on its findings to the Governor and the Legislature,” reports ROI NJ. “The mission includes completing a comprehensive study of the success and failures of similar networks around the nation, the costs of constructing and maintaining networks, and the costs to subscribers for monthly access.”
The Commission will also evaluate impediments to broadband access in the state, including those related to physical access, affordability, and digital literacy. After submitting recommendations to the state Governor and Legislature, the committee will dissolve within a year of its first meeting.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards recently signed a bill (H.B. 648) allocating $180 million of incoming federal relief funds toward establishing a grant program - open to both public and private broadband providers - aimed at jumpstarting the buildout of Internet infrastructure to unserved communities across the Bayou State.
As Senators involved in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework are negotiating over legislative language on how to spend $65 billion aimed at expanding high-speed Internet connectivity in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country, a new joint report has been published by Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) that details the massive influence Big Telecom has on Congress.
The 21-page report – Broadband Gatekeepers: How ISP Lobbying and Political Influence Shapes the Digital Divide – examines the political spending and lobbying efforts of the nation’s largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as well as their trade associations, and connects the dots on how some of the most despised companies in America have helped create the digital divide.
The report begins by noting how “major broadband providers, both telecom and cable, have chosen not to build their networks to areas they deem less profitable and not to upgrade many existing customers left behind by outdated technology. These choices entrench the far too wide digital divide and mean Americans pay some of the highest prices for service. At the same time, the largest ISPs have used their outsized influence in Congress to block any legislation that would undermine their stranglehold over the broadband marketplace. In the 116th Congress alone, these corporations spent an astounding $234 million on lobbying and federal elections.”
That’s an average of more than $320,000 a day, seven days a week, as the report’s authors note.
America’s ‘Most Hated’ Companies Lobby to Maintain Monopoly Power
Maine broadband authority redefines statewide broadband as symmetrical 100/100 Mbps connection
California Legislature and Governor reach $5.25 billion agreement on statewide middle-mile network
New Hampshire matching grant initiative aiming to promote partnerships signed by Governor
The State Scene
The Maine Senate recently enrolled a bill (L.D. 1432) amending the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund to only allow communities, municipalities, and regional utilities access to grants through the program. The bill became law without State Governor Janet Mills’ signature on June 24.
The legislation removes limits placed on the number of grants able to be awarded per project, but limits the amount of funds that may be distributed per project to 50 percent of total costs. The bill, aiming to support the deployment of municipal gigabit fiber optic networks, also requires the ConnectMaine (ConnectME) Authority to establish minimum upload and download speed definitions to foster widespread availability of symmetric high-speed Internet access, beginning in 2025.
Since it was first introduced in Congress in March, the Community Broadband Act of 2021 has gained widespread support from over 45 organizations representing local governments, public utilities, racial equity groups, private industry, and citizen advocates.
The legislation -- introduced by U.S. Representatives Anna Eshoo, Jared Golden, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker -- would authorize local communities to build and maintain their own Internet infrastructure by prohibiting laws in 17 states that ban or limit the ability of state, regional, and local governments to build broadband networks and provide Internet services.
The Act also overturns state laws that restrict electric cooperatives' ability to provide Internet services, as well as laws that restrain public agencies from entering into public-private partnerships.
States have started to remove some long-standing barriers to public broadband on their own. In the last year, state lawmakers in both Arkansas and Washington removed significant barriers to municipal broadband networks, as high-quality Internet with upload speeds sufficient for remote work, distance learning, telehealth, and other online civic and cultural engagement has become essential.
Community broadband networks offer a path to connect the unconnected to next-generation networks. State barriers have contributed to the lack of competition in the broadband market and most communities will not soon gain access without public investments or, at the very least, the plausible threat of community broadband.
The Many Benefits of Publicly-Owned Networks
Closing the homework gap has been a top priority for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. She has a long track record advocating for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, lamenting viral images of school children completing homework in fast food parking lots, and making the case that no child should be left offline. At the onset of the pandemic, she pledged to use her influence at the agency to fight to increase the flexibility of the E-Rate program, saying “every option needs to be on the table.”
When the American Rescue Plan Act established the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in March, a $7 billion program to connect students and library patrons to the Internet at off-campus locations, Rosenworcel had an opportunity to follow through on those promises. She could have seized the moment to steer the program in the direction of allowing schools and libraries to build, own, and operate their own school and community networks (what the federal government refers to as self-provisioned networks). Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students already do this, but without much help from the E-rate program.
But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the FCC’s Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets. The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.