On Monday the Colorado Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee heard SB 42, a bill to repeal the state’s requirement for referendum to reclaim local telecommunications authority. The committee of seven Senators voted 4 - 3 to postpone the bill indefinitely, leaving it in legislative purgatory. We've provided the audio above, but we missed the first minute or so of the recording.
A number of testifiers came to Denver to support the bill and also testified remotely from several locations around the state. Several testified that local investment in Internet infrastructure is the only hope they have for necessary high-quality connectivity.
Elected officials from communities that have already invested shared stories of how they had approached big national providers and were dismissed. They went on to describe how the state imposed referendum causes missed funding opportunities and the ability to partner with private providers is also at risk when communities have to jump through hoops.
Overwhelming Opt Outs
Sponsors of the bill pointed out that all communities that have held the required referendums have chosen to reclaim local authority by huge margins. Nevertheless, several lawmakers continued to attempt to tie the referendums to community debt and competition with local providers. As our readers know, passing the referendum is an opt out of state law and a number of communities don’t take any other steps.
For some, their purpose is only to have the ability to work with private providers because national providers have already denied the services local communities need. As several testifiers stated at the hearing, local communities don't typically invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure because they want to be providers - they invest because no one else will do it for them.
It Wouldn't Be A Hearing Without Them
Big providers opposed to the competition and the bill sent lobbyists to testify also. In true form, they advanced the false narrative that local publicly owned network infrastructure competes unfairly with big providers. What they really mean is that they don’t want new entrants to partner with local governments and establish a new model that would threaten their standing as powerful monopolies in less rural areas. They also recognize that local folks prefer municipal networks to unaccountable, unresponsive, unreliable corporate conglomerates that tend to block out competition. Notwithstanding some humorous conversation around "lobbyist hair" from Sen. Guzman around 1:17:00, it’s pretty much the same old tricky anti-competitive talk from the big incumbents.
An Accurate Picture
Ken Fellman, Legal Counsel for the Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance, described the situation:
This is not, as it has been portrayed by some, a government vs private sector competition issue. I’ve seen these issues all over the country and this is government and many in the private sector as you’ve heard today from the economic development director in Durango vs service providers who are trying to protect a market sector.
He went on to refer to the letter submitted by a number of signatories in the private sector and associations who supported the legislation. This bill, he stated, will help small communities. He urged the committee to pass the bill so the rest of the Senate had the opportunity to vote on it. The Committee chose not to take his advice, however, and instead defeated the motion to send the bill on with a favorable motion.
It Could Be Worse
While Colorado communities still have to contend with the troublesome and expensive referendums in order to reclaim local authority, at least their state barrier gives them an opt out provision. Ninety-five communities have already chosen to remove themselves from the burden of SB 152, which was passed in 2005, and we expect more communities to follow suit.