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Voters Approve Local Telecommunications Authority in Montrose, Colorado

By a 3,982 in favor and 1,397 opposed, the voters in Montrose decided on April 1st to take back local authority for telecommunications services. The state revoked the community's ability to establish a telecommunications utility in 2005. 

Jim Branscome covered the election results in the Daily Yonder. Branscome, a resident of Montrose, knows the local broadband situation:

Internet service here is currently a hodgepodge. Some of us depend on broadcast towers, some on DSL from CenturyLink and some on cable service from Charter. Service is generally at less than 10MB. It’s expensive, and customer service is erratic.

Community leaders state that they want to encourage fair competition and ensure every one has the opportunity to fast, reliable, affordable connectivity. 

In addition to ensuring that local businesses are in a position to compete with any large corporations that might attempt to establish a major share of the market, Turner said the city also wanted measures to enable lower income households to benefit from the advantages of gigabit speeds and capacity. “We don’t want to create two levels of society here, those who are connected and those who are not,” he said.

While Montrose is a long way from getting every person connected, the community is discussing the idea of financing a network with revenue bonds. 

This election result demonstrates Montrose's desire to be in control of their own connectivity. They understand the need to think of the future. From the Daily Yonder article:

It used to be that if a town wanted to prosper, it needed a river, then a railroad, then an Eisenhower Interstate highway, and then a cell phone tower. Today it needs to be a “gigabit city.”

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

Georgia and Idaho Communities Pass Resolutions in Support of Local Authority

Two more communities recently passed resolutions in support of local authority for broadband networks.

We have written about Ammon and its open access network in southeast Idaho. The municipal network connects anchor institutions and wireless towers in the community of approximately 14,000 people. Chris spoke with Bruce Patterson, Ammon's Technology Director, in Episode 86 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Their Resolution 2014-0005, signed by Mayor Dana Kirkham, reads:

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local governments have ensured access to essential services by banding together to provide those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, water supply, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, the City Council of the City of Ammon recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting the community, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, state constitutions and state statutes exist that may limit or prohibit local government deployment of municipal Internet services, which has the potential of prohibiting or limiting the ability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Ammon supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

In Georgia, Mayor William M. McIntosh of Moutrie also signed a similar resolution on March 4th. Moultrie is part of the Community Network Services (CNS) region where member towns in Thomas County enjoy the benefits of a municipal network.

We spoke with Mike Scott, Moultrie City Manager, in episode 39 of the Broadband Bits podcast. Scott told us how local government, schools, and residents enjoy services the large corporate incumbents would not provide.

Nearby Thomasville was able to eliminate a city tax due in part to savings and revenue directly related to the network.

CNS Logo

Moutrie's Resolution R03-2014-02 language:

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local governments have ensured access to essential services by banding together to provide those services that were not offered by the private sector as a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, water supply, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, historically, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Moultrie supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

As more communities pass resolutions, we will share their activities. If your community has officially stated that it supports the FCC in its efforts to restore local authority, let us know so we can spread the word.

Chris Mitchell Hosts March 18th Webinar: Tech in The City

On March 18th, our own Chris Mitchell will host a webinar that you don't want to miss. Tech In the City: A Conversation About Community Broadband Access will be an engaging discussion about municipal networks in light of the recent Verizon v. FCC decision. The court delved into the FCC's authority, clearing up ambiguities from past decisions.

The event, presented by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)'s Community Media Cohort begins at 11 a.m. Pacific / 2 p.m. Eastern. From the event announcement:

Earlier this year, a court order ruled against the Open Internet also known as network neutrality. However, this same order reaffirmed the FCC's role ensuring that communities and cities can create their own broadband infrastructures.

In the last decade hundreds of communities across the U.S have started their own community broadband networks via local governments, cooperatives, or other nonprofit arrangements. But cable and telephone companies, like Comcast and Verizon have a history of redlining in low-income, rural, historically marginalized communities. Led by cohort leader and community broadband expert, Chris Mitchell of Institute for Local Self Reliance, we will have a dialogue about what we can do to protect the future of community broadband networks.

RSVP for the event and spread the word!

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.

Westminster and Chanute Pass Resolutions Supporting FCC's Authority to Remove State Barriers

In light of the recent announcement, community leaders in Maryland and Kansas are rallying behind the FCC as it considers its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In a show of support, the Westminster Mayor and Common Council passed Resolution 14-01, a statement in support of restoring and preserving local authority to build networks. Twelve hundred miles away in Chanute, the City Commission took the same action with Resolution 2014-17.

Readers will remember Westminster as the central Maryland town that has carefully progressed forward in realizing better connectivity. The community recently approved a fiber pilot project as a way to test the water. Our contact in Westminster, Dr. Robert Wack, reported that interest in the network has blossomed even before the start of construction. The network has already attracted one new employer from New York.

Our 2012 case study, Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage, tells the story of how the community incrementally built a world-class network. Without borrowing or bonding, Chanute's next-generation fiber network has enhanced education, economic development, and saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

This legislative session, Chanute has contended with threatening state legislation that could derail their expansion plans. The community is very close to a project that would offer fiber services to every premise in town.

Westminster Seal

Westminster's resolution, passed unanimously on February 24, reads:

RESOLUTION NO. 14-01 RESOLUTION of The Mayor and Common Council of Westminster

SUBJECT: STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF THE FCC RESTORING AND PRESERVING LOCAL AUTHORITY TO BUILD NETWORKS

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the availability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Westminster supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

Local Authority

Chanute's resolution was very similar with special attention focused on local authority:

Preserving Local Control and Restoring Community Determination for Broadband Deployment

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide opportunities to improve and encourage innovation, education, health care, economic development, and affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, the City of Chanute, has ensured access to essential services by providing those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. Chanute’s infrastructure investments have included electricity production and distribution, gas distribution, water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, sanitation and landfill, streets, parks, and other vital community services; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable, high speed internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City Commission of the City of Chanute, Kansas, supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential telecommunications infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

ADOPTED by the Governing Body on February 24, 2014.

Communities know their futures depend on the ability to bring fast, affordable, reliable access into their community. Because local leaders recognize that large corporate providers seldom build past low hanging fruit, a growing number now invest in their own infrastructure.

Utah Senate Bill Attacking UTOPIA on the Fast Track: SB190

UPDATE: According to Pete Ashdown, the amendment has been pulled. Stay vigilant, these things rarely just go away.

We reported earlier this month that UTOPIA was once again facing legislative attack at the state level in the form of HB60. While the House has focused on other issues, the Utah Senate is launching its own attack. SB190 has also put UTOPIA in the crosshairs and events are happening quickly. Time to contact your elected officials, Utah!

According to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org, SB190 as originally crafted, could have curtailed a pending deal between UTOPIA and Australian firm Macquierie. From Harris' February 19 story on the bill:

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Since its introduction, the bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor committee. There was broad and fierce opposition and Sen. John Valentine, the sponsor of the bill, amended it. The changes made the bill palatable to Macquarie and it passed through committee to the Senate Floor on Feb. 24.

After the bill passed through the committee, Valentine introduced a floor amendment that will prevent new cities from joining the network. Harris now reports:

His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

The bill is now awaiting a vote on in the Senate. It is imperative that you contact the Senate, especially your own elected offical, to voice your opposition to the bill in its current form.

These types of end runs around legislative procedure are common place. In my own limited experience working at the state legislature, I have seen contentious sections of proposed bills added or removed to make a deal, only to be added or removed later on the floor and during conference commitee. In places that do not have a full time legislature, changing proposed legislation on top of a deadline is an effective way to take advantage of the clock to achieve an unpopular goal. It is important to remember that legislation is fluid until the gavel comes down sine die.

KKFI in Kansas City Interview Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle on Kansas Legislation

On February 13, KKFI Community Radio from Kansas City, Missouri, interviewed ILSR's Chris Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle from Common Cause. Tom Klammer, host of the "Tell Somebody" show covered Kansas legislation SB 304 aimed at preventing municipalities from investing in their own broadband networks.

Chris and Todd co-authored our 2013 case study, The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina. They reviewed the events in Wilson, North Carolina, home of municipal network Greenlight. As in Kansas, powerful cable company lobbyists attacked municipal networks in North Carolina through the state legislature.

Klammer writes on the program website:

Recently Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause brought my attention to a Kansas Senate bill, authored by a cable industry lobbyist, which would outlaw community broadband in Kansas.  Subsequently I came across an article online written by O’Boyle’s colleague Christopher Mitchell who wrote that the bill in question, if passed, would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks that we have seen in any state.

You can listen to the interview from the program website. The interview is a little under one hour.

Montrose Asks Voters to Take Back Authority to Establish A Telecommunications Utility

Colorado communities continue to seek to restore local authority for telecommunications. In April's election, elected officials of Montrose will ask voters to approve a measure that gives the municipality the right to establish a telecommunications utility.

Centennial, a Denver suburb, approved a ballot initiative last fall to use city fiber resources as a way to provide indirect telecommunications services. Centennial's community leaders want to create the most business friendly environment as possible to spur economic development

Montrose is taking a similar approach, although the language on this ballot does not limit the City to "indirect services." Elected officials have not mentioned the desire to provide any specific services yet, but the language of the ballot question suggests they do not want limited possibilities.

The City Council approved the following language for the April 1, 2014 ballot:

"Without increasing taxes, shall the citizens of the City of Montrose Colorado re-establish their City's right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, article 27 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, described as "advanced services," "telecommunications services" and "cable television services," including any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure including but not limited to the existing fiber optic network, either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, to potential subscribers that may include telecommunications service providers, residential or commercial users within the City?"

A Montrose Daily Press covered the decision:

“We’ve been working on improving our broadband in the community for quite some time,” Virgil Turner, city director of innovation and citizen engagement, said. “The city has recognized that broadband is an area where we are not on equal footing with the Front Range.”

The city sees the lack of broadband connectivity as such a hindrance, particularly in the business sector, that it is ready to explore options to provide that service itself, either directly or through a public ­private partnership.

In 2005, Colorado's state legislature passed new rules that prevented municipalities from providing any telecommunications services unless the community passes a referendum reclaiming the authority. As we saw in Longmont, large incumbents use their deep pockets to launch astroturf campaigns, media blitzes, and price gimmicks to mislead the community into a negative result.

Montrose, home to about 15,000 people, is on the far west of the state in Montrose County. Elected officials know that lack of broadband is a hindrance to schools, government, and the business community. Like other rural communities who have been left behind by large providers, Montrose wants to retain a quality workforce by bringing employers to the area. From the article:

“Those communities like Montrose have a different motivation than do the incumbent telecommunication providers,” Turner said. “Our motivation is that we have a great quality of life here, but our lack of broadband availability ... is degrading that quality of life. It’s forcing people to move to the areas where they can get the level of service they need. We see that as something that we can’t stand for.”

The language of the ballot measure clearly eliminates a tax increase as part of the initiative. According to the article, general support is strong:

“I don’t think it’s a tough sell,” [Mayor Judy Ann Files] said. “We can expect some opposition from the big corporations; it’s the big companies that have the state of Colorado tied down.”

FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.