Is it Time for Community Broadband?
The battle between local governments and telecommunications providers over the right to establish community broadband networks heated up over the last several months, as a number of bills were introduced that could have significant impact on municipalities in five states.
Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah and Tennessee were all in the spotlight earlier this year regarding everything from de-facto bans on community networks to funding and development issues. Some of the bills were pulled off the table, while others have continued through their respective states’ legislative processes.
Legislation was introduced in late January that would prevent local governments in Kansas from creating their own broadband networks or partnering with companies to provide them. Senate Bill 304 -- the Municipal Communications Network and Private Telecommunications Investments Safeguard Act -- may have also made expansion of Google Fiber in the state more difficult.
Backed by the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association, the bill was chided by critics who were adamant that its language would greatly restrict how public funds could be used to subsidize broadband initiatives.
Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.
The bill was pulled from consideration on Jan. 31, but rumors swirled in February that it would return in a different form later this year. Broadband advocates have been keeping an eye on any potential activity in this area, but so far, the bill hasn’t resurfaced.
Access to broadband in rural areas of Minnesota has been a hot issue over the last several years. A bill was introduced this year by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Redwing, that establishes a grant and loan program to further expansion of broadband services to underserved areas.
Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.
The measures generated debate throughout the state, as business owners in remote areas expressed the need for higher bandwidth to support the community. For example, according to a report in the Star-Tribune, it took a local McDonald’s franchise in Annandale approximately four hours to download a digital menu update. Whereas in other areas, the same task takes roughly 30 minutes.
Both bills have stalled in committee, however, and it doesn’t look like the issue will be taken up until 2015 at the earliest.
Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Townsend, D-Canann, HB 286 passed the House earlier this year and is up for a hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on April 23.
Fiber network expansion was under fire in February when HB 60 was introduced by Rep. R. Curt Webb, R-Logan. The legislation would prevent the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) from building out fiber infrastructure to those cities that aren’t members.
UTOPIA owns and operates fiber network infrastructure, but does not provide Internet service. Independent companies use that infrastructure to offer broadband service to consumers. The agency has 11 member cities, but communities located outside the limits of member cities can pay to have the network built out to them.
HB 60 would prevent that from happening with specific language that targets only municipal fiber networks – potentially including a Google Fiber rollout in Provo, Utah. That means other forms of broadband such as DSL or cable would be exempt.
A public uproar over the restrictions resulted in the measure being tabled in March. But broadband expansion advocates fear similar language could be reintroduced next year.
The state has a package of bills that seek to better enable local governments to pursue community broadband development. All of them, however, appear dead or stuck in committee with no hearings scheduled.
SB 2005, authored by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, and its House counterpart, HB 1974, by Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, gives the city expanded ability to offer broadband services outside its current electric service area.
Trousdale County is spotlighted in SB 2140 and HB 2242, sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, respectively. The bills permit the county to contract with a rural electric cooperative in order to provide broadband services to residents. There hasn’t been any movement on these proposals since early March.
SB 2428 and HB 2364, bills again sponsored by Haile and Weaver, revise the definition of “telecommunications,” so electric cooperatives that own dark fiber networks can, under certain conditions, offer broadband Internet service to residents in counties with populations of less than 7,900.
Finally, SB 2562 and HB 2482, authored by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, would authorize government utilities that already provide broadband services to expand their customer base to various economic development, education and health-care projects under certain conditions.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, told Government Technology that he wasn’t surprised that the bills stalled. He explained that for years, broadband advocates have tried to remove some of the barriers to network expansion in the state, but to no avail.
“The ironic result is that the federal government may be subsidizing obsolete DSL because the state will not allow local governments to expand next-generation community fiber networks even when they are not subsidized in any way,” Mitchell said.
“Many of the elected officials still don't [have] enough pressure on them from constituents to stand up to AT&T and Comcast,” he added. “Those two firms have a lot of power in the [Tennessee] Legislature.”