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Listen to the Lawyers: Audio of Oral Arguments Now Available in TN/NC vs FCC

Attorneys argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17th in the case of Tennessee and North Carolina vs the FCC. The attorneys presented their arguments before the court as it considered the FCC's decision to peel back state barriers that prevent local authority to expand munis.

A little over a year ago, the FCC struck down state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks. Soon after, both states filed appeals and the cases were combined.

You can listen to the entire oral argument below - a little less than 43 minutes - which includes presentations from both sides and vigorous questions from the Judges.

To review other resources from the case, be sure to check out the other resources, available here, including party and amicus briefs.

The Importance of Data and Cooperation: Tribal Lands

As of now, 41% of tribal lands do not have high-speed Internet access according to the FCC Broadband Report of 2016 released on January 29, 2016. That same day, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study of high-speed Internet access on tribal lands. 

The GAO report (GAO-16-222) reviewed previous federal programs that aimed to improve Internet access and interviewed several tribal entities. The result reveals the perspective of communities impacted by the data and cooperation - or lack of both - among the different federal entities. Long before this report, the FCC had recognized the shortcomings of these programs and began to improve data collection and inter-governmental cooperation.

Highlighted Areas for Improvement

The GAO focused mainly on FCC and USDA programs from 2010 – 2014, especially those that specifically addressed tribal connectivity. GAO researchers collected the perspectives of several tribal entities, which provided useful qualitative data to understand the impact of Internet access on these communities.

Tribal officials noted that the important role the FCC and USDA programs had in expanding high-speed Internet access. Throughout the report are anecdotes of how the several programs have benefitted tribal lands. The outreach efforts of the two federal agencies, however, are not always well coordinated:

“Officials from one tribe said that multiple federal programs offering similar grants were confusing and that a federal one-stop-shop for outreach and training would help them better target the right programs for their situation.“ (p. 22)

The report also touched on the quality of quantitative data. In 2006, there was little meaningful data. Although the situation has improved, reliable data is still lacking. Tribal lands are often rural and sparsely populated, such that census blocks (the basis of much data collection) cover large areas. This method can grossly overstate the availability of Internet access in such an environment.

GAO Recommendations and FCC Action

“GAO recommends that FCC (1) develop joint training and outreach with USDA; (2) develop performance goals and measures for tribal areas for improving broadband availability to households; (3) develop performance goals and measures for improving broadband availability to tribal schools and libraries; and (4) improve the reliability of FCC data related to institutions that receive E-rate funding by defining “tribal” on the program application.” (GAO-16-222)

The FCC and USDA had already recognized many of these problems and solutions and had already started to implement them. The Wireline Competition Bureau Chief DelNero and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Acting Chief Kutler responded to the recommendations. Their letter is included in the appendix of the GAO report. They assured the GAO that the FCC was already taking action on improving many of these areas. 

At the end of the day…

The report serves as a reminder that the programs of 2010-2014 have improved the availability of Internet access but not done enough for tribal lands. We still have a long way to go to bring tribal residents the access they need to participate in the 21st century.

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!

The FCC's Pro-Competition Agenda - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 192

This week we welcome Gigi Sohn, Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, to Community Broadband Bits for episode 192. Before joining the FCC, Gigi was a founder of Public Knowledge.

Gigi discusses the pro-competition agenda that Chairman Wheeler has advanced, including the efforts to ensure communities can decide locally whether to build a municipal network or partner. We also discuss other elements of FCC action to encourage competition in the Internet access market, even how television set-top boxes fit in.

Echoing some of the comments I regularly hear from some thoughtful listeners, I asked if competition was the best approach given the argument that telecom, and particularly fiber, has the characteristics of a natural monopoly.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Local Communities Appeal to State Leaders: Change State Anti-Muni Law

Some of us remember it - not so fondly - as a discarded relic of an early era of the Internet. But it’s not a relic for people in some parts of rural Tennessee: the awful sound of a dial-up modem.

There are approximately 28,000 people living in the county and as Marion County Mayor David Jackson tells it, he knows residents with no Internet access at all. Some of Marion County residents with nothing better than dial-up can actually look across the Tennessee River and see buildings and houses served by Chattanooga's EPB’s gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Given this stark contrast, it’s no wonder the push is intensifying for more access to publicly owned Internet networks in Tennessee.

Marion County Wants Local Authority

Elected officials from the Marion County Commission and the town of Kimball are the latest communities to vote on resolutions asking state leaders to change Tennessee’s state anti-muni law. The legal barrier prevents existing municipal utilities from expanding their fiber network footprints to provide telecommunications services to neighboring communities. 

In fact, city leaders in every Marion county municipality have plans to vote on their own resolutions asking the same thing: give us the local authority to decide for ourselves.

While the U.S. Court of Appeals considers whether or not to reverse the FCC decision to roll back the state barrier, communities are calling on the legislature to solve the problem by restoring local authority.

As Communities Succeed, the Municipal Fiber Movement Grows

These communities hope that changing the law will enable Chattanooga to extend its much celebrated EPB network to serve the people of Kimball and other communities in Marion County. The efforts come in the wake of similar requests out of Bradley County.

"There's a movement, pretty well statewide now, to expand broadband and fiber optic networks throughout rural areas of the state," Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "In order to do that, there has to be a change in the state law."

The Marion County officials are forwarding their resolutions to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and Marion County’s state delegates. While state leaders have not signaled an intent to change the law and some county officials tried unsuccessfully to get the law changed in 2014, Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger believes things are different now: 

“‘They're going to try it again,’ he said. ‘There are some other concessions being made that will [give it] a better chance of passing this time.’”


Mr. and Mrs. Monopoly Seek Treatment with Competify

Check out this new video from the Competify coalition. The short 2-minute feature introduces viewers to Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly, who are clearly suffering from "chronic broadband access control."

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly

Competify focuses on raising awareness about the long term damage caused by lack of high-quality Internet access competition. Our livelihoods suffer when a small number of huge corporate telecommunications providers control connectivity. The coalition provides hard information on how these de facto monopolies and duopolies negatively impact our lives and how a more competitive environment can help.

Here is a statement from Competify and the Partners for the Cure:

The largest data collection ever conducted by the FCC and almost a decade of advocacy by those throughout the broadband economy have finally brought us to this long-awaited milestone — the FCC’s review of the high-capacity broadband market. As the incumbents struggle to come to terms with the fact that their own behavior has given them chronic broadband access control, they seem to be trying to blame the high-capacity broadband lines they sell for their very own conduct. Here at COMPETIFY, we have a message for those critical high-speed broadband lines: from powering schools and libraries to 5G to the Internet of Things, we think you are pretty “special.” And today is a major step toward your freedom.

It’s important to note that a very common symptom of chronic broadband access control is confusion. Indeed, the large incumbent companies have gone to great lengths to explain why the lines providing vital broadband service to our businesses, hospitals, schools, government buildings, banks and countless other indispensable institutions are “not very special anymore” and are “obsolete.” By all means, if those interests insist on that point of view, then they should have no concerns whatsoever about this proceeding, as they have obviously moved on to more “special” technologies.  In the meantime, the rest of the broadband economy anxiously awaits the FCC’s efforts to finally cure this diseased marketplace.

Visit the Competify website to learn more and to sign the petition asking the FCC to take action to encourage competition through smart policies.

Holding Their Breath in Bradley

Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close

CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.

For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.

They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."

Waiting...Waiting...Waiting

Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge. 

Bradley County residents and businesses may also have a chance at fiber if the state legislature adopts legislation introduced last year by Cleveland's Representative Kevin Brooks. Senator Janice Bowling sponsored the Senate version last year and the two vowed to carry on advancing the bill this year. The bill, that would restore local authority to invest in Internet networks, received backing from a number of organizations and local communities.

Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga and its world famous gigabit municipal fiber, is located immediately west of Bradley County and ready to expand to the communities that want access to the EPB gigabit. Due to Tennessee's restrictive state laws, EPB cannot serve beyond its current electric service footprint:

DePriest, who is also chairman of the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, said the Chattanooga utility is eager to expand into the parts of Hamilton County it doesn't currently serve, which includes about 9,000 homes in east Hamilton County, and into all of Bradley County, which has more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

"We have developed some plans and we will develop more," DePriest said. "We've already had more than a thousand people from that area write us, email or call us asking when they can get our (broadband service)."

"We think we have the expertise and the infrastructure already in place so that expanding into these areas would help them and help us," he said. "We would have to work out the arrangement with Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Electric because this is their territory and we're not going to go anywhere where we are not invited and where it doesn't make good business sense."

#RightToConnect Twitter Town Hall Archive Now Available

If you were not able to attend the #RightToConnect Twitter Town Hall on January 21st, you are in luck. The good folks at the Center for Media Justice campaign have collected some of the most memorable moments at Storify.

In addition to tweets from moderator W. Kamau Bell, memorable tweets from elected officials such as FCC's Jessica Rosenworcel, Mignon Clyburn, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are on file to view. You can also link to stories of participants captured on video and audio and check out research material from organizers and participants. 

In order to accurately describe the struggle endured by those without Internet access, organizers obtained stories from people who know firsthand what it's like. Here is Roxanne from Minneapolis:

As we move forward, universal access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity must be a priority. Kudos to MAG-Net and partners for bringing this conversation online - the place where it needs to happen but least likely to occur.

Are You From Tennessee? Your Opinion Matters!

For the past several months, we have covered the plight of North Carolina and Tennessee. These states have passed laws that prohibit local governments from expanding beyond their municipal electric utility service area to bring better connectivity to neighboring communities. Even though nearby towns ask places like Chattanooga or Tullahoma to provide services, they are prevented from doing so.

Today we bring to you this news story from Anderson County, Tennessee. Local officials are encouraging residents to tell the state about their horrible connectivity. With a bill in the state legislature to remove the restriction and the state embroiled in a court case to challenge the FCC's decision to roll back the state barrier, local governments are using the survey to connect people with lawmakers.

In Anderson County, some local government agencies have hardcopies of the state’s survey for those without Internet access. Any Tennessee resident with Internet access can take the survey online here

"It's the slow circle of death that you see wheeling around there, and it's waiting and waiting and waiting," -- Steve Heatherly, Anderson County Chamber of Commerce Chairman

#RightToConnect Twitter Town Hall Jan. 21

On January 21st, join the Media Action Grassroots Network and its partners for the #RightToConnect Twitter Townhall. The event takes place at 3 p.m. EST/12 p.m. PST. The conversation will focus on lifeline and finding ways to bring more low-income families online. MAG-Net and partners will bring together a number of those families with elected officials and advocates pursuing change.

The event will be hosted by comedian W. Kamau Bell, @wkamaubell. Guests will include:

  • FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, @MClyburnFCC
  • Senator Cory Booker, @CoryBooker
  • Van Jones, DreamCorps, @VanJones68
  • Panel of Eligible and Current Lifeline Subscribers

RSVP for the event, share the announcement with your friends, and send your questions to angella@mediajustice.org. Check it out, participate, be heard.

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