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We've been writing for years that the artificial restrictions put on municipalities that keep communities from solving their connectivity needs with locally owned and operated networks are unpopular with the vast majority of Americans, irrespective of political affiliation. Today, 17 states persist in keeping these barriers in place.
A new survey out from Consumer Reports shows just how out of touch such policies are, and we've been remiss in not pointing it out. The survey, which comes from data collected in Chicago in August of 2021, highlights an array of important statistics.
They include the fact that "nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent) who have a broadband service at their home say it’s difficult to afford their monthly broadband costs," with "a larger percentage of Black, non-Hispanic (32 percent) and Hispanic (33 percent) Americans than white, non Hispanic Americans (21 percent) say[ing] it’s ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ difficult to afford their monthly Internet [access] costs."
The most recent survey also finds that "43 percent of Americans who have broadband service in their household say they are dissatisfied with the value they get for the money," a testament to the circumstances for tens of millions of households stuck in monopoly territory with no viable options.
What about municipal or community-owned broadband?
Three out of four Americans feel that municipal/community broadband should be allowed because it would ensure that broadband access is treated like other vital infrastructure such as highways, bridges, water systems, and electrical grids, allowing all Americans to have equal access to it.
A larger percentage of Democrats (85 percent) than Independents (74 percent) and Republicans (63 percent) say municipal/community broadband should be allowed.
Across the Commonwealth of Virginia, local governments, county broadband authorities, cooperatives, and private Internet Service Providers are leveraging the influx of American Rescue Plan funds to reach the state’s goal of achieving universal access to high-speed Internet connectivity by 2024.
With $850 million in state appropriations for broadband connectivity and $1.15 billion in local government and private service providers’ funding matches, the state is on track to invest $2 billion dollars toward broadband expansion in the coming years, and is currently investing in broadband expansion projects at record levels.
In August, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia State Legislature agreed to devote $700 million of the state’s $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to expand access to broadband. The $850 million investment the state has announced will consist mostly of American Rescue Plan aid. The funds will be administered by the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which distributes grants to public-private partnerships to extend broadband service to unserved regions of the state, or areas that lack access to Internet service delivering connection speeds of at least 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps).
Public-Private Partnerships Deep in the Heart of Virginia
From the marsh grasslands making up Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across the three peninsulas carved out by the Chesapeake Bay, all the way to the Shenandoah Valley in the West, a diverse array of regional partnerships have formed between Virginia’s local governments, electric and telephone cooperatives, and private ISPs as broadband expansion efforts continue to advance in 2022.
Following hundreds of requests from community members urging the local Public Utility District (PUD) to address the lack of Internet access in Lewis County, Washington, the Lewis County PUD is answering the call with a proposal to construct an open access countywide fiber-to-the-home network and a relentless pursuit of broadband construction grant opportunities on behalf of its 33,000 members.
The plan to construct the 110-mile-long fiber backbone – anticipated to cost between $110 and $130 million to build – is months in the making. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the PUD has applied for over $30 million of state and federal broadband grants.
In August of 2020, the PUD applied for a $5.5 million grant through the Washington State Public Works Board to provide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services to residents of four communities in the western region of the county – “from west Chehalis to Adna and Pe Ell along Highway 6, and down through the Boistfort Valley,” according to the PUD’s website.
When that grant application was not awarded, the PUD turned to the USDA’s Community Connect program to propose a smaller project that would serve three of the four aforementioned communities. The USDA is expected to announce those grant recipients soon.
In years past, states have implemented preemptive laws that make it more difficult or impossible for communities to build their own Internet networks.
These state barriers were often enacted at the behest of large telecom monopolies to limit competition, and include everything from outright bans on municipal broadband networks to oppressive restrictions and requirements which create legal uncertainty for communities attempting to offer telecommunications and Internet services, including via partnerships.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, there were 19 states maintaining significant restrictions on municipal networks. Today, the number of states upholding these barriers has been reduced to 17. The pandemic served as a turning point in the fight for local authority, and in the past year, Arkansas and Washington adopted legislation significantly rolling back legislative barriers on publicly owned broadband networks.
In February of 2021, both chambers of the Republican-dominated Arkansas State Legislature voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 74 to State Governor Asa Hutchinson, who signed the bill into law. The legislation grants government entities the authority to provide broadband services and expands the financing options available to municipalities to fund municipal broadband projects.
In May of 2021, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed two bills expanding municipal authority to provide retail Internet services to end-users, House Bill 1336 and Senate Bill 5383. Both bills reduce barriers to municipal networks, but House Bill 1336, which completely removes all previously-held restrictions on public broadband in the state of Washington, is expected to take legal precedence.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has partnered with Southeast Nebraska Development District (SENDD) and the Nebraska Economic Developers Association (NEDA) to present a broadband seminar series to provide education to local elected officials, economic developers and other stakeholders. The series covers everything from the basics of broadband infrastructure and technology to financial models to the longterm benefits of investing in fast, reliable Internet access.
The series was developed by Christopher Mitchell, in collaboration with SENDD and NEDA, and produced and edited by ILSR Senior Researcher and Multimedia Producer Maren Machles.
In the first episode, Christopher introduces broadband technology and terminology, including network basics, infrastructure development, and business models.
In the second episode, Christopher is joined by Brent Comstock (CEO and Founder, BCom Solutions), Thomas Magnuson (Geriatric Psychiatrist at University of Nebraska Medical Center), Kyle Arganbright (Mayor of Valentine, NE and Executive Vice President and co-founder of Sandhills State Bank), and Brook Aken (Economic Development Manager, Omaha Public Power District) to discuss the longterm benefits of fast, reliable broadband on everything from economic development to telehealth.
Christopher is joined by David Young, Chief Information Officer for the City of Lincoln and Lancaster County in the third episode of the series. The two give guidance on state and federal broadband programs as well as barriers, challenges, and solutions for broadband infrastructure deployment.
Update: State Governor Jay Inslee signing two bills amending the same section of state law at the exact same time forced the Washington Secretary of State to seek judicial guidance on which bill will take precedence over the other in the face of legal challenge. It is still unclear if the two bills are compatible; however, in these instances the bills should be filed in the order in which they passed the State Legislature, with the bill filed last taking legal precedence. The Public Broadband Act passed the State Legislature one day after S.B. 5383; therefore, the Public Broadband Act should prevail over the Senate bill (S.B. 5383).
Yesterday, following weeks of anticipation, State Gov. Jay Islee signed the Public Broadband Act (H.B. 1336), removing all restrictions on public broadband in the state of Washington, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, State Rep. Drew Hansen, D-23. This critical leap forward in Washington drops the number of states with laws restricting community broadband to 17.
Rep. Hansen’s tweet announcing the passage of H.B. 1336:
BREAKING: Governor Inslee just signed my Public Broadband Act so we have ENDED ALL RESTRICTIONS ON PUBLIC BROADBAND IN WASHINGTON STATE!!
Next step: contact your local gov’ts (utility districts, ports, counties, etc.) & tell them you want public broadband.
LET’S GO GET IT!!
Federal Government Devotes Billions to Internet Access: A Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding
In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.
It’s also worth emphasizing that 18 states still put localities at a disadvantage when it comes to spending anticipated funding effectively by preserving laws that interfere with community investment in broadband infrastructure. Much of this money could also be funneled for other purposes due to a lack of good plans and community engagement.
The amount of funding flowing into communities is unprecedented. Localities should prepare to spend funds on needed, futureproof infrastructure. This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime investment in Internet infrastructure and communities who develop a clear, actionable plan and are as ready as possible once the money starts flowing will prosper.
If you’re a homeowner looking for assistance paying your Internet bill…look to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
If you’re an HBCU or Minority-serving institution looking to expand Internet access to your students, or if you’re a minority business enterprise or nonprofit organization in the surrounding community...look to the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
if you’re a Tribal government, Tribal organization, or Tribal college or university, including native Hawaiian organizations, education programs and native corporations…look to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
If you’re a city interested in partaking in a public-private partnership…look to the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
If you’re a school or library whose main concern is obtaining remote Internet access devices...look to the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Federal Aid Directly To States, Counties, Localities and Territories
Though voting was highly conflicted and debates lasted late into Sunday night, H.B. 1336, an act granting public entities unrestricted authority to provide telecommunications and Internet services to end-users, scraped through the Washington State Senate by a vote of 27-22 on April 11.
If State Governor Jay Islee signs H.B. 1336, Washington will have removed its barriers to municipal networks, leaving just 17 states with deliberate barriers to local Internet choice. “We’re fired up around here,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-23, in an interview. “What a huge deal this is. It undoes 20 years of bad state policies which restricted local governments from offering broadband.”
Washington’s charter counties, first-class cities, and cities operating under Washington’s Optional Municipal Code already have the power to construct telecommunications networks and offer Internet access services to their residents without third-party business overseeing network management operations.
Hansen’s bill would give this authority to the public entities currently restricted by statute from offering retail services. This includes Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and district ports, as well as, towns, second-class cities (defined as those with populations of 1500 or more which have not adopted a city charter) and counties currently not operating under Washington’s Optional Municipal Code.
Hansen said this about the development:
BREAKING: Wash. Senate just passed my Public Broadband Act (HB1336). Thanks to the parents, teachers, students, public utility districts, tribes, activists, 1000+ people signing in support (!) and more. WE did this; amazing team effort. Public Broadband Now!!!
Pending Bills In Washington Legislature Aim To Allow Public Utility Districts to Partake in Retail Broadband Market
Though Washington is home to one of the nation’s fastest growing tech hubs, many communities throughout the state lack adequate broadband infrastructure. The stark divide between those Washingtonians with reliable home broadband connections, and those without, became especially relevant last year, when many were forced to rely on their home Internet access for work, school, health, socialization, and much more.
A year into the pandemic, it seems lawmakers in Olympia are finally waking up to the connectivity issues currently plaguing the state. In January, bills aiming to advance broadband connectivity by allowing public entities to participate in the retail broadband market were presented in the House and Senate of the Washington State Legislature. The two bills have both cleared their respective chambers, and are waiting to be heard in committees of the opposite legislative chamber.
Discussions surrounding the two bills will continue on March 11th, when Washington’s Senate Energy Committee is set to hold a hearing for House Bill 1336, one of two bills being considered (the other is Senate Bill 5383).
Both bills aim to grant public entities, such as Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and ports, the authority to operate as Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Currently PUDs and ports can build broadband networks but must offer wholesale access to private ISPs, and are prohibited from offering direct retail services to residents and businesses. The bills being considered now would allow them to deliver Internet access to Washington residents without a charter or third-party business overseeing network management operations.
While the bills are similar, they possess important differences. At the heart of the dispute between the two proposed laws is a preemption clause included in Senate Bill 5383, sponsored by State Sen. Lisa Wellman.
This week on the podcast we're joined by Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom, to talk about the pressing broadband issues of today and tomorrow. Christopher and Berin share what they see as the biggest barriers to universal, high-quality Internet access today, including the jurisdictional issues facing communities large and small, as well as the regulatory solutions which would facilitate more rapid and efficient infrastructure deployment.
They debate whether we should spend public dollars not just on rural broadband where there are no options, but in town centers with slowly degrading copper networks where monopoly providers have signaled little intent to ever upgrade that infrastructure.
Christopher and Berin then dive into an issue Berin has been working on for the past few years: the Section 230 debate, and what it means for the future of the Internet if content platforms become liable for the third-party content they host.
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.