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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.

FCC Releases Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

Section 702 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to report annually on whether "advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC kicked off its tenth such report on Tuesday by releasing a "Notice of Inquiry," (NOI) in effect asking individuals and groups around the country to offer relevant data and comments. 

This process amounts to a kind of crowdsourced "State of the Union" on broadband issues. In addition to determining how many people in what areas have broadband access, this NOI also asks the critical question of how exactly the FCC should define broadband. The current definition of 4mbps download capacity and 1mbps upload may have been sufficient in the past, but isn't adequate for even recreational household use by many Americans today, let alone the demands of running a business and conducting commerce online.

This NOI also asks some arcane but important questions about other aspects of broadband definitions, including latency (the speed of data moving within a network, a different measure than bandwidth) and the widespread use of data caps and other policies in the telecom industry. 

Obviously the answers to all these questions have significant implications for municipal networks. Inadequate or overly-loose definitions of broadband allow incumbents to claim that they are providing excellent service to just about everyone in a given area, when that is often far from the truth. Many restrictive state laws limiting municipal networks, as well as federal grant programs that may support such networks, are based on whether an area is defined as already served or underserved, which may be dependent on FCC benchmarks. As is often the case in regulatory issues, the devil is in the details.  

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced the NOI with the following statement:

Congress has instructed us that all Americans should have access to robust broadband services, no matter where they live. Because consumers demand increasing levels of bandwidth capacity to support the applications they want to use online, we are asking if it is time to update the benchmark broadband speed. And as more people adopt faster broadband speeds, we are asking if all consumers, even in the most rural regions, should have greater access to better broadband. 

We here at ILSR believe the answer to both questions is a resounding "YES." The due date for initial comments is September 4th, and ILSR intends to make its voice heard.

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 110, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 22 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."

Community Network Media Roundup: Week of August 1

The effort to restore local authority in deciding whether or not to build a municipal fiber network is full speed ahead.

On Monday, the FCC responded to petitions from Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC by opening up formal proceedings on the matter, and requesting people weigh in on the issue. Reporters from the Washington Post to GovTech covered the story.

Starting off this week’s Media roundup, we hear from Carl Weinschenk with IT Business Edge. He stated what we’ve all been thinking (and saying) for a while now:

“The fight over the right of municipalities to build their own networks seems like such a no-brainer that it takes some digging to even figure out why opposition to the idea exists.”

The Switch’s Brian Fung helped do that digging, and wrote an excellent piece on how the municipalization of electricity in the late-19th century fits into the discussion, and how that history can help to build a case for community networks. 

“[In 1933] Roosevelt launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration... ‘TVA went in with the notion of, 'Let's make power cheap enough that the average person can afford it, and let's make money by selling on volume — not on massive margins," said Harold DePriest, chief executive of the public electric utility in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That worked for TVA. And at the time, it forced the private power companies to reduce the rates.’"

GovTech’s article, while it questions whether municipal networks are the answer, raises a powerful point: If ISP’s were getting the job done, cities wouldn’t have to come in and set up networks. 

“EPB officials [in Chattanooga] say the FCC is required by Congress to remove barriers to Internet accessibility. The point of EPB’s petition is to remind the FCC of that and solicit the agency’s help in changing current state law.

EPB Fiber Logo

Joyce Coltrine, for one, is on board... She says Internet providers have snubbed her and her neighbors for years. She says broadband is not available in her slice of the county… Coltrine told commissioners that Internet hot spots and 4G data packages are too expensive and spotty to rely on for dependable connections. Her frustrations were affirmed by an “Amen” from the crowd and other murmurs of agreement.”

After months of discussion and a blog post that stated Chairman Wheeler’s support of a community’s right to fair and open competition, The consumerist’s Chris Morran put it bluntly: “Put Up or Shut Up”.

Lightreading took up the topic from more than one angle. Carol Wilson wants to know: 

“... waiting for incumbents to get around to upgrading aging copper networks in many areas seems a strategy already doomed to failure. These companies exist to make money, and if they could have done that building gigabit networks in smaller cities and towns, it would have happened by now. So if not a muni-backed network, then what?”

Jason Meyers talked to Teresa Mastrangelo, who founded BroadbandTrends LLC. She also has noticed a disturbing (but not surprising) trend in who gets connected and who’s left out in the cold: 

"...Clearly these members of Congress have a lot of funding coming to them from big players," she says. "The Communications Act is actually preventing people from participating in the digital age in these cases. In un-served and under-served markets, there should be exceptions to this rule."

The FCC anticipated that communities would step forward to ask them to overturn the state limits. Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin makes clear that the petition is focused on the specific communities that filed the petition: 

“These petitions will be handled on a case-by-case basis, so don't expect the FCC to make a single declaration that preempts all state laws inhibiting municipal broadband. ‘The FCC has the authority to take broader action through rulemakings—but that is not what is happening here,’ an FCC spokesperson said.”

The public comment period for the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions ends August 29. the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has posted instructions on how you can have your voice heard.

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC on Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments to the FCC as part of its Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet proceeding. ILSR focused on the issue of paid prioritization, reclassification, and regulation of content. We also provided some examples of municipal networks that provide fast, reliable, affordable service and do not rely on paid prioritization to serve customers.

From the ILSR comments:

The FCC should be extremely wary of any arguments that claim paid prioritization or other discriminatory practices are necessary to increase investment in next-generation networks. These networks are already being built and paying for themselves in both public and private approaches (as well as partnerships mixing the two). ILSR sees no reason to believe any additional revenues gained by discriminatory pricing would be reinvested in improving DSL and cable networks as the largest firms operating these networks generally face little competitive pressure to upgrade. That is the problem, not a lack of revenue in the current model.

Our reading of the various court decisions suggest the only option for the FCC to preserve the open Internet and prevent big cable and telephone companies from tinkering with the established principle of non-discriminatory carriage is reclassification and urge the FCC to take this step. However, we also urge the FCC to take actions to prevent any regulation of content. The FCC should concern itself with the transmission of information, regardless of what that information is, consistent with long-held Internet principles.

The Open Internet proceeding has inspired an estimated 1 million+ comments. The outpouring strained the FCC's system and as a result, the FCC extended the comment period to July 18th.

The full document is available below for download and available on the FCC's electronic filing system.

The FCC Is Our Best Shot to Restore Local Authority

For the first time in many years, we have an opportunity to repeal some particularly destructive state laws limiting investment in community networks. To be clear, this is our best shot. I've already covered the background and offered a blanket encouragement for you to post comments.

Chairman Wheeler has been looking for an opportunity to expand local authority by removing state laws that limit investment in Internet networks. The cable and telephone companies are marshalling their considerable forces to stop him. But we can, and must help.

We have spent years analyzing these state barriers for ways to restore local authority. The FCC, using its Section 706 power, is our best shot. The carriers have far too much power in the state capitals, which means that even when we have public opinion squarely on our side, the carriers easily kill state bills to restore local authority.

Anyone who thinks we have a better shot at rolling back state barriers individually in the states rather than with this FCC is wrong. Really wrong. Between Art Pope and Time Warner Cable lobbyists, there is no hope for any legislation that would threaten cable monopolies in North Carolina.

These petitions on municipal networks are not some FCC smokescreen related to the network neutrality proceeding. In fact, we at ILSR remain publicly frustrated with the FCC's failure to act more strongly in protecting the open Internet. But Chairman Wheeler, for reasons that seem somewhat personal to him, is particularly motivated to remove the anti-competitive laws passed by big cable and telephone company lobbyists. It strikes a chord with him and I, for one, am glad to see him taking action on it.

Anyone who claims action on municipal networks is some sort of trade for giving up on network neutrality is, once again, really wrong. For one thing, a trade requires two parties and I have yet to identify a single entity that would trade meaningful open Internet protections for rolling back a few barriers to municipal networks. Haven't found one. Not even us.

Further, restoring local authority on municipal networks is not a trade for the FCC later preempting local authority over the rights-of-way because once again, no one is ready to take that deal. Advocates of local decision-making authority tend to oppose preemption as a matter of course.

In the case of the current FCC proceedings, it must be noted that the FCC is actually being asked to preempt preemption, which is to say the principle remains that local authority should be respected. The FCC will remove state restrictions on local authority; no community will be required to take action it prefers not to.

This is a key opportunity. The FCC's Section 706 Authority allows it to remove barriers investment. No one is talking about creating new regulations.

For those still skeptical about these petitions, let me suggest this: If this is all some elaborate game of 3D chess masterminded by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, let's call him on it. Let's assemble a great record of how local governments can increase investment in next-generation services and states should not revoke their authority to decide for themselves how to invest or partner to improve and expand Internet access. In the worst case scenario, we will have compiled a great case for our position.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice has posted instructions on how to file. File anytime between now and August 29. We are still working on a resource with recommendations and such for MuniNetworks.org and will publish them soon.

Oklahoma's Sallisaw Passes Resolution to Support FCC As It Considers Preemption

Sallisaw, home of DiamondNet, is the latest community to publicly express its desire to put telecommunications authority in the hands of the locals. On July 14, the Sallisaw Board of City Commissioners approved Resolution 2014-17 in support of the FCC's intention to preempt state anti-muni laws.

A Resolution Supporting Telecommunications Infrastructure For Local Governments

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 Sallisaw has ensured access to essential services by providing those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost; and

WHEREAS, in 2004 the City of Sallisaw took steps to construct its own Fiber to the Premise telecommunications system and now provides the community with quality state-of-the-art broadband services including video, High Speed Internet and telephones services, that otherwise would not be available today; 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 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 Board of City Commissioners of the City of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, 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 14th day of July, 2014.

When City staff began researching the possibility of a municipal network in 2002, they discovered that dial-up was the only option for residents; businesses had the option of T1 connectivity. At the time, a coaxial or hybrid coax/fiber system were considered, but Sallisaw went with fiber to future-proof the network.

In an undated interview with the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service, network staff commented on the benefits for the community:

The key benefit of the City owning this system is that the revenue stays in the community. Our current annualized revenue is more than $1.5 million before expenses. As our customer base and revenue grows we will begin to see more net revenue after expenses, and that net will go to other non proprietary city services.

From DiamondNet FAQs:

The community of Sallisaw owns the FTTH system and its employees are residents of the community. In the past, the cable television provider in the community experienced numerous ownership and name changes, averaging about one every four years. DiamondNet will have one name and one owner for the life of the system. As your neighbors, we strive to provide you with excellent service. When you need help, just pick up the phone or come see us on the main floor at City Hall on Choctaw Street. We are here to serve you. 

Chattanooga and Wilson Comment Period Open; Tell the FCC You Support Local Authority

Last week, the communities of Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, filed petitions with the FCC. Both communities requested that the agency remove state barriers preventing expansion beyond their current service areas. On July 28, the FCC established a public comment calendar for the request. It is imperative that all those with an interest in better access take a few moments to express their support for these two communities.

Opening Comments are due August 29, 2014; Reply Comments will be due September 29, 2014. That means you need to submit comments by the end of this month. If you want to reply to any comments, you can do that in September.

This is a pivotal moment in telecommunications policy. For months municipal network advocates have been following Chairman Wheeler's stated intentions to remove state barriers to local authority. Within the past few weeks, federal legislators - many that rely on campaign contributions from large providers - pushed back through Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn introduced an amendment to a House appropriations bill preventing FCC preemption if the amendment becomes law.

ILSR and MuniNetworks.org encourage individuals, organizations, and entities to file comments supporting the people of Wilson and Chattanooga. These two communities exemplify the potential success of local Internet choice. We have documented their many victories on MuniNetworks.org and through case studies on Wilson [PDF] and Chattanooga [PDF].

Now is the time to share your support for local decision-making. This is not about whether any given community should build its own network so much as it is about whether every community can decide for itself how to best expand and improve Internet access, whether by investing in itself or working with a trusted partner.

ILSR will be filing comments in support of Wilson's and Chattanooga's petitions. As a service to those who plan to express their support for local authority, we will continue to provide information, guidance, and resources throughout the comment period. In the near future, there should be a guide to help you submit comments. But if you are really enthusiastic or already know the process, here are some links.

File comments electronically for Wilson's petition at Proceeding 14-115; Chattanooga's petition is Proceeding 14-116. Petitions and exhibits are available at the filings pages or at the links below.

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.

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.