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Rural Indiana Looks to Tax Increment Financing to Build Fiber Networks

Wabash County, Indiana wants to expand its access to high speed internet through a fiber optic network build out, and is planning to use a distinctive financial tool to do so. The Wabash County Redevelopment Commission has begun the process of assigning a special Economic Development Area designation for the purpose of helping to finance new fiber deployment through parts of the mostly rural county of 33,000 people.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.

TIF  has been a popular approach among local politicians around the country for decades as a way to work around tight budgets and finance improvements in blighted areas, often in the form of public infrastructure. It has sometimes drawn criticism, especially in cities like Chicago where it is very heavily used. One downside is that it effectively takes properties off the general tax rolls. 

More important for our purposes, however, is that the use of TIF for next generation fiber optic networks is a fairly new phenomenon. While municipal networks around the country have used a wide range of financing approaches to cover upfront costs, most have revolved in some way around bonds that are repaid from network revenue. Using TIF to capture the increased property value that a fiber optic network would create is an interesting approach.

In the case of Wabash County, it’s not yet clear exactly how the funds would be used. There is a local private incumbent provider, Metronet, which received $100,000 last year to match its own $1 million investment to bring fiber to a town on the north edge of the county. The county also has a cooperative utility (Wabash County REMC) that provides power and telephone services in rural areas and has expressed interest in using TIF to build out a fiber network. Whichever entity ultimately receives TIF money, it does not appear that the county is interested in owning the network itself. 

Wabash County is not alone it its pursuit of TIF-backed fiber networks. Other counties and municipalities in rural Indiana have been moving along the same lines, from Chesterton in the north to Dubois County in the south. The Indiana  Association of Cities and Towns, meanwhile, recently helped defeat an attempt by telecom industry lobbyists (ahem, AT&T) in Indianapolis to pass legislation eliminating the authority of local governments to use TIF - but only for fiber optics and other telecommunications equipment.  

Whether or not TIF eventually proves to be a good tool for building high speed fiber optic networks in rural areas and small towns remains to be seen. Taking a broader view of the value of a the public and private value a municipal network creates, beyond a simple glance at network revenues, is a step in the right direction. In any case, the right of local communities to make their own choices about how best to finance, plan for, and pursue their shared needs is paramount.

North Carolina Town Saves Public Dollars With Its Own Network

On June 18 Holly Springs, home to approximately 25,000 people, started saving money with its new fiber I-Net. Last summer, the Town Council voted to invest in fiber infrastructure as a way to take control of telecommunications costs. Just one year later, the 13-mile network is serving community anchor institutions.

After exploring options with CTC Technology and Energy, Holly Springs determined that deploying their own $1.5 million network was more cost effective than paying Time Warner Cable for data services. Annual fees were $159,000; over time those costs certainly would have escalated. According to the Cary News, Holly Springs anticipates a future need for more bandwidth:

“And we wouldn’t have been able to actually afford as much (data) as we need,” [Holly Springs IT Director Jeff Wilson] said. “Our costs were going to be getting out of control over the next couple of years.”

Because state law precludes the town from offering services to homes or businesses, Holly Springs plans to use the new infrastructure in other ways. State law allows the community to offer free Wi-Fi; the town will also lease dark fiber to third-party providers. According to the News article, the town has already entered into a 20-year contract with DukeNet, recently acquired by Time Warner Cable. DukeNet may expand the fiber to the Holly Springs Business Park for commercial clients.

The community's free Wi-Fi in public facilities is approximately 20 times faster than it was before the deployment, reports the News:

When the town activated the network on June 18, “People told us they could tell the difference immediately,” said Jeff Wilson, Holly Springs’ IT director.

According to the News, the fiber network allows the city to expand free Wi-Fi to more green spaces. Cameras at baseball fields now stream live video of games; parents and grandparents can watch activities online if they cannot attend games in person.

For more on the community and the project, check out Chris' conversation with Jeff Wilson in episode #107 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Chattanooga and Wilson Petition FCC to Remove Anti-Competitive Restrictions

Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, are two of the most successful municipal fiber networks by a variety of metrics, including jobs created, aggregate community savings, and more. This has led to significant demand from surrounding communities for Wilson and Chattanooga to expand. We have profiled both of them in case studies: Wilson and Chattanooga.

Expecting this outcome, the big cable and telephone companies had pressured the states to limit where municipal networks can offer service, unlike the private companies that can invest anywhere. Wilson cannot expand beyond county limits. Chattanooga already serves its entire electrical footprint, which stretches into northern Georgia and includes a few other towns but cannot serve anyone beyond that.

FCC Chairman Wheeler has been quite clear that he intends to remove barriers to competition that limit local authority to build community networks.

Today, Wilson and North Carolina have filed petitions with the FCC to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. These barriers were created after major lobbying campaigns by Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable, one of which we chronicled in The Empire Lobbies Back. We have also explained how the FCC can take this action and interviewed Harold Feld on the matter.

Read press statements from Chattanooga EPB and Wilson, North Carolina [pdf]. Also, Wilson's Full Petition and Exhibits [pdf], Chattanooga's Petition [pdf], and Chattanooga's Exhibits [pdf]. Jim Baller worked with them on the filing, so you know the facts are straight.

We issued a press release this afternoon,

“The move today cuts right to the heart of local authority,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks with The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “The ultimate question is who decides what investments are right for each community — that community or officials far removed from it..”

If the FCC agrees with the petitions, the big cable companies will almost certainly appeal it to the DC Circuit Court, where a recent Verizon v. FCC opinion specifically noted that this type of action is well within its authority.

CLIC Logo

On behalf of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, CEO Joanne Hovis wrote,

The net effect is to stifle competition, harm public and private sector economic development, and extinguish associated quality of life improvements in education, health care, energy use and public safety. Nearby communities that desperately want services from these networks are prevented from receiving it. Wilson and Chattanooga have asked the FCC to step in using its authority to promote advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans and preempt these state laws; to let local choice prevail.

Because the power of incumbent providers is so great in each state legislature, there is little hope for a remedy at the state level. These petitions are part of a larger discussion at the national level, whether the promise of modern Internet access will be for ALL Americans, or only for some.

And both Sam Gustin and Karl Bode were quick to post on the matter as well. Sam wrote on Motherboard at Vice:

In states throughout the country, major cable and telecom companies have battled attempts to create community broadband networks, which they claim put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecommunications industry, introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting such state laws. The amendment passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 233-200, but is unlikely to make it through the Senate.

And Karl Bode called it "Put Up or Shut Up Time for FCC on Community Broadband:"

Comcast and AT&T have quickly moved to stop the FCC's potential assault on their protectionist laws via both lawsuit threats via proxy groups, and via politicians like Martha Blackburn, who, after receiving campaign contributions from PACs tied to both companies -- has passed a bill in the House threatening to strip FCC funding if the agency dares to act. It's not a fight that would be easy, but it's a fight the FCC should win -- and it's a long-overdue fight that must be had if we're to finally start taking broadband competition problems seriously.

As with consumer advocate requests that ISPs be reclassified as utilities as a solution to neutrality concerns, this is another area where Wheeler can prove he's either thrown aside his long-history of industry lobbying and is ready to fight for consumers, or is just another in a very long line of FCC bosses too timid to meaningfully challenge deep-pocketed campaign contributors and the status quo.

And finally, we have seen an outpouring of grassroots support for this effort.

The Past and Future of Muni Fiber in Boulder - Community Broadband Bits Episode 108

Boulder is the latest Colorado community to recognize the benefits of using city-owned fiber to spur job growth and improve quality of life. Boulder Director of Information Technology Don Ingle joins us for episode 108 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the many ways in which Boulder has benefited from community owned fiber over the past 15 years and the smart policies they have used to expand conduit throughout the community.

We finish with a discussion about the upcoming referendum that Boulder will likely place on the November ballot to regain local authority to use and expand its fiber assets to encourage job growth and increase residential options.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Vote Expected Today on Blackburn Amendment Targeting Munis; Call D.C. Now!

Last night, GOP Representative Marsha Blackburn, introduced an amendment intended to destroy local authority for telecommunications investment by severely limiting FCC funding. The amendment, introduced during debate on H.R. 5016, targets 20 states, many with state-erected barriers already in place and/or municipal networks already serving local communities.

The vote was postponed but is expected today (Wednesday) at approximately 2:30 p.m. ET. Now is the time to call the D.C. office of your Representative and tell him or her to vote NO on this amendment. If your Rep has a telecom staffer, ask to speak to him or her first.

The text of the amendment is as follows:

AMENDMENT TO H.R. 5016, AS REPORTED OFFERED BY MRS. BLACKBURN OF TENNESSEE

SEC. ll. None of the funds made available in this Act to the Federal Communications Commission may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws with respect to the provision of broadband Internet access service (as defined in section 8.11 of title 47, Code of Federal Regulations) by the State or a municipality or other political subdivision of the State. 

Multichannel News reports that New York DFLer Jose Serrano reacted the way we hope all Members will when it is time for the vote:

Wheeler has argued that those laws were the result of incumbent broadband providers using their lobbying muscle--he used to be one of those himself as president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association--to try to block competition.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who rose in opposition to the amendment, agreed with Wheeler, saying that the issue is about allowing cities to operate without cable company lobbyists stopping them.   He said the amendment was an attack on individual rights of citizens speaking through their local leaders. "This is to stop states...from choking grassroots competition," he said.

Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA), who opposes the amendment, sent out a statement to his House colleagues when it became clear Blackburn would introduce the amendment (emphasis Doyle's).

Municipal broadband offers a genuine opportunity to inject real competition into the broadband marketplace and gives communities an innovative set of tools that they can use to solve their own problems.  Local communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure, including the option of working with willing incumbent carriers, creating incentives for private sector development, entering into creative public-private partnerships, or even building their own networks, if necessary or appropriate.…

I urge you to VOTE NO on the Blackburn Amendment.

Local communities should retain the right to decide how to meet their connectivity needs whether through publicly owned infrastructure or through the private market. Rep Blackburn and those that support this amendment do not trust local communities to make the best choices for themselves. The FCC wants to ensure state legislatures do not impose their will as influenced by the telecommunications lobby. Call your Rep!

National Coalition Opposes Anti-Muni D.C. Legislation; Time to Call Your Rep!

The National League of Cities (NLC), National Association of Counties (NACo), and National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) joined together this morning to send a letter to Congress expressing their opposition to anti-muni legislation being discussed in the House.

As we reported yesterday, it is imperative that concerned constituents speak out against two anticipated amendments that can stifle local investment or end local telecommunications authority. The amendments are expected within the next few days, so we need to act now.

Appropriations bill H.R. 5016, introduced on July 2nd, provides funding for financial services and general government, including the FCC. H.R. 5016 will be the vehicle to force through language to further restrict community broadband networks.

The amendment most damaging to local telecommunications authority is expected to come from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The amendment's purpose is to remove authority from the FCC to preempt state laws preventing local broadband infrastructure investment. By restricting the FCC's use of its funding, the legislation will choke the agency's ability to explore its plan to influence anti-muni state barriers so local communities can decide their own fates.

As the NLC, NACo, and NATOA write in their letter to Congress:

The National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties (NACo), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) strongly urges you to oppose any amendment to HR 5016 that would hamstring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from taking any action on – indeed, even discussing – the issue of state laws that prohibit or restrict public and public/private broadband projects. It is clear that such laws harm both the public and private sectors, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, and hamper work force development.

...

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal, state, and local efforts are taking place across the Nation to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. 

State barriers to public broadband are counterproductive to the achievement of these goals. Efforts to strip funding from the FCC to even discuss this issue, let alone take action, are misplaced and wrong. Please oppose any amendment to HR 5016 or any other measure that could significantly impair community broadband deployments or public/private partnerships.

Contact your Representative's D.C. office today and tell them to vote NO on any H.R. 5016 amendment that negatively impacts community broadband, restricts the FCC, or impairs local authority over telecommunications decisions.

UPDATE: The Coaltion for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) also released a letter to Congress today. From CLIC's letter:

As Congress and the Commission have often recognized, ensuring that all Americans have reasonable and timely access to advanced telecommunications capabilities, particularly in rural and other high-cost areas, is “the great infrastructure challenge of our time.” Toward this end, Congress has assigned the Commission a central role in defining the relevant terms and standards and in identifying and removing barriers to broadband investment and competition. While preemption of State barriers to broadband investment and competition should be used rarely, in only the clearest of cases, it should not be ruled out categorically in all cases, as the Blackburn amendment would do.

At this critical time in our country’s history, we should not preclude or inhibit any potentially successful strategy that will enable our communities and America as a whole to thrive in the emerging knowledge-based global economy. Nor can we afford to take off the table any approach that may be necessary in certain cases to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition.

Read both letters below.

Holly Springs Finds Savings with Muni Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 107

Holly Springs, a town of about 25,000 in the Triangle region of North Carolina, has built its own network to connect community anchor institutions and has an interest in using it to spur economic development and other community benefits but a 2011 law pushed by Time Warner Cable makes some of that more difficult.

City IT Director Jeff Wilson joined me for episode 107 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discussed why they decided to build a municipal network and how they have just finished the actual build.

We also discuss the savings they anticpate from owning the network and how local residents were hopeful that the network could be expanded to connect homes and businesses before learning that state law restricted them from doing that.

Read our additional coverage of Holly Springs.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 13 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Call to Action: Tell Your D.C. Officials to Vote NO!

H.R. 4752 from Rep Latta (R-OH) will be brought up in the House, likely as an appropriations rider, some time within the next few days. In the past several months, the municipal network movement has made great strides. If passed, this bill's content can be a significant setback. We encourage you to call the D.C. office of your elected officials and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 4752, NO on any rider based on H.R. 4752's language, and NO on any amendment that restricts FCC authority.

Be very specific when it comes to municipal networks - local governments should be the ones to decide whether a network makes sense. These amendments are designed to strip the power from the FCC that would allow it to ensure local governments can make this decision.

H.R. 4752's language would prevent the FCC from regulating Internet service providers under Title II. There is also some indication that the House will consider an amendment on municipal broadband; constituents need to stop the rider and the amendment from moving forward. 

This bill was introduced months ago. According to OpenSecrets.org, its Republican sponsor has received more than $320,000 in campaign contributions from the communications sector since 2007. 

The Free Press has also spoken out against this bill, which would help destroy network neutrality and this lethal amendment.

Get the word out to your communities ASAP! Call your Rep's D.C. office and urge him or her to vote NO on this bill or on any similar rider and NO on any amendment restricting FCC authority. As you know, if the FCC is limited in this way, its authority to take other meaningful action to support municipal networks will be compromised.

When you call your Representative's D.C. office, ask first to speak to the staffer in charge of telecom. If you live in a community where you have benefitted from a municipal network or in a community that is exploring the option, share your experiences. Let them know that you not want Congress limiting FCC authority in this way.

Chattanooga Will Ask FCC to Preempt State Barriers in Tennessee

Since January, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the FCC has the authority to preempt state anti-muni laws, local communities have publicly supported the notion. Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) will join those communities when it petitions the FCC to preempt similar laws in Tennessee, reports The Center for Public Integrity.

Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communication at EPB recently told The Center:

“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”

Chattanooga, one of the publicly owned networks that have inspired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, has proved itself as a strong economic development tool. According to the article:

A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

A number of other communities with municipal networks, or in the process of deploying them, have passed Resolutions that support the FCC:

In addition to communities with firsthand experience, the American Public Power Association (APPA) also passed a Resolution in June, urging Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to unequivocally support:

…the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar Resolution at its annual meeting in June, which read:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Soon after, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) joined together for a letter of support to Chairman Wheeler:

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

Fortunately, support is also coming from DC. In late June, a collection of Senate and House Members penned a letter to Chairman Wheeler, asking him to take action and begin the process. In a statement fully supported by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Members wrote:

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Local communities, regional coalitions, and federal leadership all recognize the importance of local Internet choice. The country is ready for the next step, Chairman Wheeler. We support you!

Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”