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New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 12

This week, you might have been tripped up by some infuriating “spinning wheels of death” on the Internet, but don’t worry, the slow-down was largely symbolic— at least for now. Fierce Telecom covered the Internet Slowdown Day protest on Wednesday, organized by “Battle for the Net." It was designed to bring attention to what will happen if so-called “slow lanes” are allowed under new FCC net neutrality rules. 

Netflix, MuniNetworks, Kickstarter, Reddit, and thousands of other sites took part in the protest. “The New Yorker’s” Vauhini Vara writes that Internet Slowdown Day produced more than 700 thousand comments about proposed FCC rules. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is positioning itself to come out on top whichever way the Net Neutrality rules fall. Susan Crawford urged the FCC to take action and “Think Chattanooga.”

“This is not a story of huge companies fighting one another. This is a sweeping narrative of private control over the central utility of our era: high-capacity Internet access. We, the people of the United States, are the collateral damage in this battle; we are stuck with second-class, expensive service.”

Muni Networks are gaining more ground, with Chattanooga and Wilson, NC still in the spotlight. Anne L. Kim took up the issue of preemption on CQ Roll Call. She interviewed Chris Mitchell for the article:

“Communities build their own networks because they think the private sector isn’t investing in them, said Christopher Mitchell… According to Mitchell, in the case of city-wide municipal fiber networks, reasons for deployment are often a mix of getting fast, reliable service at an affordable price.”

Blogger KateCA of My FireDogLake commented on the failings of the invisible hand in the telecom realm in her Corporations and The Commons post. 

“While free enterprise usually merits a hearty rah-rah in certain circles, competition between for-profit entities and publicly-owned ones seems to be a no-no, at least to Rep Blackburn and her crowd when it comes to [Chatanooga’s] EPB.”

In The New York Times, Colin Dougherty laments the search for a killer app in cities where Google Fiber has set down roots. He talked to Chris Mitchell and other experts about the difference between local control and dependence on a corporation like Google:

“It felt like a righteous invading tech company coming in to tell us how to run the city,” he said. Faster Internet helps Google in lots of ways."

The more time users spend searching the web or watching YouTube videos, the more ads Google sells and the more Google services people use. The company could also use Fiber to test new services like household-targeted TV commercials.

As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intention to address barriers to competition and broadband deployment, several reporters, including Stephen Hardy of Lightwave Online wrote on the topic.

Regarding the definition of broadband, Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin and Fierce Telecom’s Sean Buckley wrote that AT&T, Verizon, and others made claims that consumers simply don’t need or want faster Internet speeds.

"Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10 Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T wrote in a filing. 

AT&T’s comments were made public after Wheeler mentioned that the current definition for broadband is much slower than is necessary for economic growth.  

Casey Houser suggests that gig networks are forcing big telecom to play a game of “anything you can do I can do better”. But many communities are not waiting around for the big guys to come in. More announced this week they are dipping their collective toes into the municipal broadband pool. 

Lexington, KY mayor Jim Gray says he’s moving forward to give his city a big gig push. 

Austin, MN’s Vision 2020 group is studying how it can get its own gig, after being passed over by Google Fiber three years ago. The Daily Herald’s Trey Mewes reports that the group will be going door-to-door to get feedback about the Gig Austin proposal.

Finally, a recent article in The Advertiser counters some false statements made by a paid muni network hit man. Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) director Terry Huval said a report published by “Reason”, and written by Steven Titch is extremely flawed and biased. 

“Steven Titch, a paid analyst, and formerly a news editor in the telecommunications industry, has been criticizing LUS Fiber and other municipal broadband systems for virtually the past decade,” Huval wrote in response to the report. He takes data and twists it in a way that meets the particular needs of that client,” he said. “The bottom line for us is we are doing well. We are growing every year.”

Blackburn and Wheeler: Awkward Penpals

Back in June, some sixty House Republicans led by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn sent an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing their “deep concern” with his support for community networks. They took issue with comments he made at a House Energy and Commerce hearing in May, indicating his willingness to preempt incumbent-sponsored anticompetitive state laws that handicap or outright ban municipal networks. 

In the the views of Rep. Blackburn and her allies, this “sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination.” They demanded answers from Chairman Wheeler on a set of eight questions so leading that they would make even the most partisan pollster blush. They featured many of the same “states’ rights,” “unelected federal bureaucrat,” and “unconstitutional authority” talking points used later in the floor debate over Blackburn’s anti-muni amendment, softened up and rephrased just a bit for polite company. 

In late July, Chairman Wheeler offered a formal written response. He opened with a diplomatically worded overview of the U.S. broadband sector, before launching into the heart of the matter:

“...Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their own future. There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition. I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I also know that state laws which directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances.”

While the legal debate is all about the extent of federal authority, Chairman Wheeler correctly identifies the real policy issue: "communities' ability to make their own decisions about their own future." Preemption [meaning removing state preemption] is about enabling choice, not forcing any particular option on a local community. Conversely, "states' rights" is used by Rep. Blackburn and her allies as a blanket permission to dictate to every county, township, and municipality in a given state that they must take service from monopolistic incumbents or go without broadband entirely.

 

Chairman Wheeler gamely answered each of the questions in Blackburn’s letter, despite the fact that some were little more than veiled threats:

[Blackburn et. al:] “1. If the courts struck down the FCC’s ploy to override state laws restricting municipal broadband do you believe that such a decision would weaken the credibility of the FCC?” 

[Wheeler:] The commission gives careful consideration to all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues before making decisions…As you know, final Commission decisions are typically subject to judicial review, but I do not believe that is a reason to shy away from making important decisions. 

Translation: 

Blackburn: Don't even think about it, we will sue you. 

Wheeler: Fine by me.

Several of the other questions were variations on the theme of “How dare you!”:

[Blackburn et. al:] “2. Why does the FCC believe state governors and state legislators should not have a say over how to govern the political subdivisions of their state even though that is what they are elected to do by voters?”

and 

[Blackburn et. al] “7. Did you ever ask Congress for the authority to override states’ rights with respect to municipal broadband?”  

In defending the legal soundness of preemption, Chairman Wheeler quoted both the language of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as several favorable circuit court decisions that “specifically characterized preemption of state laws restricting municipal broadband as a ‘paradigmatic’ example of the authority given by Congress to the FCC under Section 706.”

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire tense Blackburn-Wheeler correspondence is given in the following exchange: 

[Blackburn et. al:] “6. How does the FCC believe Section 706 authority trumps the states’ rights in the Constitution?”  

[Wheeler:] As explained above, Section 706 establishes a strong federal policy of ensuring that broadband is available to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. When state laws come into direct conflict with critically important federal law and policy, it is a long-standing principle of Constitutional law that state laws can be subject to federal preemption in appropriate cases. I do not view federal preemption as a matter to be undertaken lightly. Such action must be premised on careful consideration of all relevant issues. As noted above, in any proceeding involving these issues, the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented to determine the appropriate course of action. 

This is the correspondence in a nutshell: Blackburn and her allies are hopping mad about the prospect of their big telecom donors having to compete with municipal networks or private companies partnered with municipal networks, and Chairman Wheeler is striking a measured, non-provocative tone while sticking to his guns on the need to restore local authority to increase competition. The qualifying phrase “the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented” appears, by my count, eight times in Wheeler's four page letter. 

The Blackburn-Wheeler exchange stands in contrast to the response letter sent by Wheeler to Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Mike Doyle, which contains much of the same language and phrases but strikes a decidedly different tone. Chairman Wheeler apparently had no objections to Rep. Doyle’s pro-municipal network letter, and was in fact “heartened by [his] support for community broadband.” 

While the FCC rulemaking process sometimes seems like a black box, there are many political aspects to its decisions that extend into the public arena. Reading the tea leaves on exchanges like these between Congress and the FCC does not necessarily offer definitive answers, but it does appear to indicate that Chairman Wheeler is leaning in the right direction and may be willing to take the inevitable heat that a decision in favor of restoring local authority would bring.

National Journal Traces Growth of Partisanship in Municipal Broadband Debate

In an excellent piece titled “How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet,” the National Journal outlines the disappointing political evolution of municipal broadband, from a bipartisan local choice issue to an anti-Obama Administration, pro-incumbent telecom, states’ rights issue. 

It was not so long ago (2005, to be precise) that three Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman) joined three Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would enshrine the principle of local choice explicitly in law, preempting anti-muni state laws pushed by incumbent lobbyists. A year later, 215 House Republicans voted for a bill that included a similar preemption provision. In 2007, even more Republican Senators joined McCain and Graham, including Olympia Snowe, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith. Their communications bill, including local choice provisions, narrowly missed becoming the law of the land due to fights over unrelated net neutrality issues. 

Yet somehow, in 2014, we have the Blackburn anti-muni amendment passing the House floor with nearly unanimous Republican support: 223-200. There are multiple reasons for this, including the generational shift in the Republican Party away from moderates like McCain and towards the more insurrectionist Tea Party. The Journal article also cites the ubiquitous hostility to anything associated with President Obama, even extending to statements made by his nominees at the FCC in favor of federal preemption. Ever greater lobbying spending by cable and telecom incumbents has helped muddy the water for municipal broadband as well.

Yet even some of the same Republicans who once supported local choice now oppose it. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the current and former Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles communications issues, was one of the leading figures in pushing the bill that included preemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2014, he joined his caucus in voting for Blackburn’s amendment to stop such preemption. From the Journal:

An Upton spokesman claimed there's nothing inconsistent about supporting a bill to nullify state restrictions and opposing FCC action that would do the same thing.

"Voters and their elected representatives, not bureaucrats at the FCC, should make the decision whether to spend tax dollars on municipal broadband," the spokesman said in a statement.    

This is conveniently myopic logic, considering it is voters and their elected representatives at the local level who are being blocked from deciding municipal broadband issues in some 20 states but the very laws Upton has helped keep in place.

The article, while somewhat disheartening about the current state of things, also underscores a fundamental truth about community networks: they are not intrinsically partisan. There is no set-in-stone law that says Republicans must oppose them at all costs. They are not about government mandates, the size of government, executive overreach, or any other red herring. Community networks are about choice, exercised by residents and the elected officials that are their neighbors, to decide for themselves what they need and how to get it. It doesn’t get much more Jeffersonian than that.

Boulder Chamber Supports Ballot Measure to Restore Local Authority

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of ballot measure 2C, which would restore the City of Boulder's authority to provide telecommunications services to its residents. From the Chamber's website:

City of Boulder 2014 Ballot Measure 2C – Affirming the City’s Right to Provide Telecommunication Services

Colorado State Bill 152 precludes cities from offering broadband services without an exemption provided by a vote of the people. Boulder currently has over 100 miles of fiber-optic cable providing high-speed Internet capabilities to city offices, the University of Colorado and the federal labs.  If 2C passes,  the City would be granted the authority to expand that network to residents or businesses.

The Boulder Chamber has taken a leadership role on 2C, stating: “[P]artnership with the private sector may well represent the fastest, most seamless path to providing service to our residents and students, and to attracting and retaining the companies that drive our innovation economy. And there are partners in the community who could leverage such an opportunity.”

Local business communities are often the first to benefit from the cheaper, better, faster service when municipalities expand their networks. As the Chamber's statement notes, Boulder already has over 100 miles of fiber installed but is blocked from leveraging those assets by SB 152, which effectively outlaws community networks unless voters pass a referendum restoring local authority. Because deep-pocketed incumbents typically spend heavily to defeat such referenda and public agencies are blocked from lobbying on their own behalf, support from local groups like Chambers of Commerce are crucial.

Boulder stands to join the ranks of Longmont, Centennial, Montrose, and other Colorado communities that have voted to restore their local authority. So far, despite the obstacles and incumbent spending, every Colorado municipality that has put the issue on the ballot has passed it - eventually. 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 6

Chairman Wheeler chose the 1776 start-up incubator office as the backdrop for his comments Thursday that outline a new agenda for big telecom: Competition, Competition, Competition.

IDG News Service Grant Gross reported on the chairman's comments.

"At the low end of throughput ... the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers," Wheeler said. "That is what economists call a duopoly, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition."

Wheeler unveiled a new broadband competition agenda, which charges the FCC to:

  • Protect competition - including generally opposing merger efforts...
  • Encourage competition - including opening up new spectrum...
  • Work to create new competitors - in a place where "meaningful" competition is not available.

Time magazine's Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote that critics will believe it when they see it: 

But it seemed to some consumer advocates to be disingenuous in a climate where the FCC is widely expected approve of a massive planned merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next six months.“The real proof will be in the agency’s actions and not just its speeches,” wrote advocacy group Free Press’ policy director, Matt Wood, in a prepared statement.

The Switch's Brian Fung noted that Wheeler kept specifics to a minimum but, 

"He emphasized that the FCC would continue extending broadband to rural areas by supporting "whomever steps up to the challenge" — a veiled reference to competitive entities, such as city governments, seeking to challenge large, incumbent ISPs."

Last week’s FCC deadline for Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC petitions made for a treasure trove of broadband-related media hits last weekend and into this week.

First things first, we've said it before and we'll say it again. Allan Holmes with the Center for Public Integrity wrote a must-read. "How Big Telecom Smothers City-Run Broadband" is insightful, in-depth, and really explains how we've gotten to where we are now in this national fight. 

Ellis Smith offers a human element to this issue:

When Joyce Coltrin looks outside the front door of her wholesale plant business, her gaze stops at a spot less than a half mile away.

All she can do is stare in disbelief at the spot in rural Bradley County where access to EPB's fiber-optic service abruptly halts, as mandated under a Tennessee law that has frozen the expansion of the fastest Internet in the Western Hemisphere.

And Dominic Rushe of The Guardian quotes our own Chris Mitchell:

It’s a story that is being watched very closely by Big Cable’s critics. “In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us.” 

On Friday, USTelecom, which represents the Big Cable Duopoly wrote wrote a little blog post on the subject, The Inquisitr.com helped translate:

"If cities are allowed to expand their own broadband, it could force Comcast and Time Warner to stop practices like data throttling that squeeze businesses, such as Netflix that have grown successful playing by the rules. Netflix recently agreed to pay Comcast a toll to keep from losing additional customers over the black hat practice of slowing down content that users are already paying for."

The Verge's Jacob Kastrenakes covered the filing and blog post. He states that the industry giants argue the FCC simply doesn't have the power to preempt state law.

While USTelecom is right that some public broadband networks have turned into blunders, many have been incredibly successful and have actually proven to be legitimate competitors to private networks. 

AT&T filed its petition Friday as well, arguing that municipal networks should not be given tax breaks, but of course they make no such claim for companies like themselves. 

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin wrote about the doublespeak Tuesday:

“’Community broadband networks “should not receive any preferential tax treatment,” AT&T argued. Only private companies should be given special treatment, the company said. “Indeed, any tax incentives or exemptions should be provided, if at all, to private sector firms to induce them to expand broadband deployment to unserved areas,’ AT&T wrote.”

Several other journalists echoed his reporting.

IDG News Service's Grant Gross reported on several petitioners, including Todd Patton, of North Carolina:

"There is very little competition for broadband services in most areas today, leaving consumers at the mercy of a small handful of huge multi-national corporations like Time Warner Cable and AT&T to raise prices as they see fit," he wrote. "Municipal broadband offers consumers an affordable choice and often at higher speeds than the big corporations choose to offer." 

The Electronista and Brittany Hillen from Smash Gear noted that AT&T argues that allowing muni networks to exist would make private companies operate at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Sam Gustin from Motherboard spoke with one tech expert that noted the irony:

“You almost have to admire AT&T’s chutzpah in saying that, given the concessions they wrung out of communities over the years for promised AT&T broadband deployments that never even materialized,” said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran tech policy expert who supports community broadband initiatives. 

AT&T reported more than $18 billion in net income in 2013. . .

Brad Reed from BGR’s story got picked up by YahooNews. He wrote that AT&T argued it simply shouldn’t have to compete with municipal broadband networks in places where they offer 6Mbps or greater, “even if the municipal network would deliver speeds of 1Gbps or higher for it’s users.”

And DSLReports added a little history to the mix, reminding us of AT&T’s polls that insinuated that muni networks would result in pornography and government rationing of TV usage. 

AT&T wasn’t the only company that filed a letter to the FCC. Netflix also joined the preemption fray. The streaming giant filed its comments Tuesday, saying, 

"Federal preemption is appropriate when state laws unduly interfere with municipal broadband."

Because we follow the good, the bad, and the ugly, we have to mention some misguided politicians with the National Association of Governors. 

RBR.com (which regards itself as “The Voice of the Broadcasting Industry”) brought up claims that state sovereignty is the real issue, and the “FCC has no right to supersede any federal, state, or local law.” 

And Eric Boehm of Watchdog.org, an arm of the Center for public integrity noted:

“The local governments say they want to grow the taxpayer-funding, public Internet access to compete with Internet giants like Comcast.

Essentially, they are asking their biggest brother — the federal government — to back them up in a fight with their bigger brothers in state government.”

Again we note the double-speak. Boehm first argues that muni networks would be too difficult to compete with for private companies, and then calls them out as "boondoggles.” We encourage these organizations to at least try to get their stories straight before they hit the big red “publish” button. 

A couple of cities are announcing their interest in city-owned broadband. 

First posted in The Coloradoan and also covered by InnovationNews: Fort Collins city manager Darin Atteberry announced a Broadband Strategic Plan proposal as part of his 2015-2016 budget. 

Atteberry said the proposal is in response to citizen comments about slow Internet speeds in the city and new, next-generation high-speed Internet services becoming available across the nation.

More Syracuse officials are announcing their support of a city-owned network. Nader Maroun, a Syracuse Common Council member says Syracuse MetroNet has been actively involved in researching how a network could be run in the city:

Significantly, this municipal network would not involve any local public funding nor would it be built and managed by the city. Instead it would be created by a new nonprofit organization specifically tasked for this purpose. Since Dr. Nulty's study, we have been exploring ways in which such a network might be financed, built and managed.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 22

As we move closer to a FCC decision to restore local authority, more lawmakers are coming out to back Wheeler’s comments on using Section 706 authority. This week Senator Markey and Representative Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania issued a statement calling on Wheeler to take action. 

Wheeler will need that kind of support to remove state laws that restrict competition, as John Brodkin writes in his Ars Technica article. Matthew Berry, the chief of staff to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, spoke at the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that already announced it would sue if Wheeler allowed the FCC to step in and overturn state laws:

“In short, under our constitutional framework, states are free to grant or take away powers from municipalities as they see fit. So the basic concept is this: city governments are appendages of state government, but state governments most definitely are not appendages of the national government."

Multichannel’s John Eggerton also warned that those opposed to preemption think the FCC is overstepping its authority: 

“Section 706 does not come close to containing the necessary clear statement that Congress intended to authorize the FCC to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects." 

But others (thankfully) disagree.

Kate Cox at The Consumerist summed up the preemption letter call-and-response between lawmakers and Wheeler:

"In his letter, the chairman agreed that, the state laws against municipal broadband “have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition.”

 Motherboard’s Sam Gustin followed the most recent letter as well:

He [Wheeler] also reiterated his earlier stance on pre-emption, saying, “I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I know that state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances,” though he diplomatically added, “I recognize that federal preemption is not a step to be taken lightly without a careful consideration of all relevant legal and policy issues.”

Revisiting the Blackburn Amendment Debates

REMINDER - Today is the last day to file comments in the opening round of the FCC petitions of Wilson and Chattanooga. Information on how to file here.

Last month, we covered the progress of U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to restore local decision-making as its budget wormed its way through committee and into a larger appropriations bill. Her quest to keep state bans and restrictions on community networks in place (including in her home state of Tennessee, where Chattanooga EPB has filed a petition to start serving neighbors in need) is impressive for its boldness, if not its logical consistency. Impervious to many observers and commenters who noted her extensive financial support from incumbent telcos, she succeeded in passing the amendment on the House floor by a vote of 223-200.

The points raised by Representative Blackburn on the House floor in support of her amendment deserve some attention, as does the rebuttal offered by Representative Jose Serrano of New York’s 15 district, who rose against the amendment and in defense of the right of local communities to decide for themselves how to meet their broadband needs. Few of Blackburn’s arguments will surprise regular observers of the telco incumbent playbook, but there are some highlights that deserve special focus.

Rep. Blackburn based nearly her entire argument against FCC preemption on the idea that states are closer to the people than Washington, and that the FCC shouldn’t tell the local folks what to do:

“[Chairman Wheeler] wrongly assumes that Washington knows best, and forgets that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top down.”

“...Twenty states across this country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees. These state legislatures and governors have not only listened but have responded to the voices of their constituents. They are closer to the people than the Chairman of the FCC.  They are accountable to their voters.”

“...State governments across the country understand, and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

We could not agree more, Rep. Blackburn: the right answer does not always come from the top down. Which is exactly why state legislators and incumbent lobbyists should get out of the way and allow local communities to find their own answer for affordable broadband access. In his time on the floor, Rep. Serrano raised this point as well:

"Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. 

[Blackburn’s] amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leader to determine if their broadband needs are being met."

Representative Blackburn also raised the specter of the “failed” UTOPIA network, and charged that the FCC would somehow force all states to do something similar:

“For example, look at the failed UTOPIA project, that has created massive disruption and is challenging taxpayers… That doesn't sound like a model the federal government needs to force against the wishes of state elected officials” 

No one is “forcing” any kind of municipal broadband model on any community; under preemption each community would simply be free to choose for itself. The unfortunate state legislators who may potentially see the federal government go “against their wishes” are in fact forcing a cable and telecom monopoly model on local communities. 

Rep. Serrano noted the example of Chattanooga EPB, where gigabit connections can be had by anyone for $70 per month from the municipal utility and potential customers are clamoring for service but are blocked by state law. He also rooted out the red herring of “forcing” a given model on anyone: 

“Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist.

“Broadband is something that we need to expand... It should be available everywhere, and it should be available in every possible place - rural, suburban, inner city, in homes, in schools. 

We have to build the infrastructure to make that happen.” 

Rep. Serrano also submitted several letters into the Congressional Record in support of FCC preemption, including those submittted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

As important as it is to name and shame the politicians (such as Rep. Blackburn) who act on behalf of their corporate sponsors to undermine local communities, it is equally important to give credit where it is due. In this case, a pat on the back is due to Rep. Serrano, who took time on the House floor to point out some of the more ludicrous straw man arguments used by the anti-community network crowd. 

The full Congressional record of their exchange can be seen here (the relevant debate starts on page 6280). Youtube also has an edited video of Rep. Blackburn’s full floor statements from her own channel, where Rep. Serrano’s well-reasoned rebuttal is conspicuously absent.

Denver Post Editorial Takes Aim at Colorado Law Limiting Investment

SB 152, the telecom incumbent-supported Colorado law that restricts municipalities from building broadband networks or even partnering with other entities to do the same, is increasingly coming under fire. The City of Longmont passed a referendum to restore its local authority in 2011 and has started construction on a project that will make it Colorado's first gig city.

Centennial and Montrose voters have chosen to restore their authority as well. Boulder plans to put a similar measure to the test in elections this fall. So far, every community in Colorado that has put restoring local authority on the ballot has gotten it done - despite heavy incumbent spending and astroturf activism.

Now, an editorial in the Denver Post has called even more attention to the issue of SB 152 and the anti-competitive, undemocratic environment it has created in the State of Colorado: 

The statute created by SB 152 needs to go away. While civic and business leaders tout ambitious projects to connect the state with the rest of the world, Colorado is falling behind because of artificial constraints to broadband expansion.

Longmont pioneers saw past all of that and pushed through, even in the face of well-financed opposition. A few other communities are starting to see the advantage of bucking SB 152.

Longmont's Roiniotis says the question he hears almost constantly is, "When am I going to get my gig?"

It is a question the entire state should ask.

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.