New Jersey establishes state committee to strategize deployment of community broadband networks
Louisiana Senate amends bill, opening state grant program to municipally-owned providers
Washington laws expanding municipal authority to provide retail service take effect
The State Scene
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, on July 7, enacted legislation (A.B. 850) establishing a new state committee tasked with evaluating where community broadband networks should be established across the state, by surveying areas where public networks would be most feasible to deploy.
The 19-member Broadband Access Study Commission “will consider the logistics of deploying community broadband networks and report on its findings to the Governor and the Legislature,” reports ROI NJ. “The mission includes completing a comprehensive study of the success and failures of similar networks around the nation, the costs of constructing and maintaining networks, and the costs to subscribers for monthly access.”
The Commission will also evaluate impediments to broadband access in the state, including those related to physical access, affordability, and digital literacy. After submitting recommendations to the state Governor and Legislature, the committee will dissolve within a year of its first meeting.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards recently signed a bill (H.B. 648) allocating $180 million of incoming federal relief funds toward establishing a grant program - open to both public and private broadband providers - aimed at jumpstarting the buildout of Internet infrastructure to unserved communities across the Bayou State.
Before the bill passed the Louisiana Senate, it was amended to remove an exclusion that would have required local governments using the grants to contract with only private providers. The provision would have excluded communities from recruiting LUS Fiber, the state’s only municipally-owned telecommunications provider, to expand Internet access locally.
LUS Fiber, beginning as a Lafayette-based municipal gigabit network, has expanded to serve the neighboring communities of Youngsville and Broussard and currently serves 21,000 subscribers. This April, LUS Fiber also received a $3.1 million federal grant to lay 47 miles of fiber infrastructure along U.S. Highway 90, connecting Lafayette Parish, St. Martin Parish, and Iberia Parish.
With President Joe Biden’s administration having placed an emphasis on using federal funds to boost municipally owned providers like LUS Fiber, omitting communities from using the grants to employ the locally based ISP would have been disobliging.
The grant program enacted by Gov. Edwards - the Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) program - will be administered by the newly created Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity. To access GUMBO grants, providers “will have to cover at least 20 [percent] of costs and be required to provide high-speed [I]nternet at affordable prices for the next five years. The projects will be evaluated based on how many households and businesses they serve, and ones that receive buy-in from local governments will earn extra points,” reports AP News.
During the 2021 legislative session Washington’s State Legislature passed two bills (H.B. 1336 and S.B. 5383) expanding the authority of municipal entities to provide retail broadband service. On Sunday, both bills went into effect across the state.
When State Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bills into law on May 13, he signed them simultaneously with a pen in each hand, in response to the political complexity of being lobbied by both the sponsors and the supporters of the two bills. Since the bills amend the same section of state law and hold provisions that conflict with one another, the move forced the Washington Secretary of State to seek judicial guidance on which bill would take precedence over the other in the face of legal challenge.
According to MRSC, the Secretary of State was told that the House bill (H.B. 1336) will prevail over the Senate bill (S.B. 5383), since in these instances the bills “should be filed in the order in which they passed the legislature” and H.B. 1336 passed the State Legislature one day after S.B. 5383. State House Rep. Drew Hansen had previously asked Gov. Islee for his bill (H.B. 1336) to be signed second, since it gives more latitude for public entities to provide direct broadband service.
The final version of the Public Broadband Act (H.B. 1336) grants public entities previously constrained by statute from offering retail services the unrestricted authority to provide Internet services to end-users, removing all restrictions to public broadband in the state of Washington. Meanwhile, the final version of S.B. 5383 authorizes Washington’s Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and district ports to offer retail broadband service to end-users, but only in unserved areas, and it tacks extra reporting requirements onto any PUD or port aiming to do so.
The bills’ incompatibility will likely force the State Legislature to revisit the issue upon one of Washington’s PUDs or ports attempting to provide retail broadband in a “served area,” defined as areas of Washington in which households and businesses have access to broadband service at minimum speeds of 100 megabits per second download (Mbps) and 20 Mbps upload. Currently, no PUD or port has gone on record to say confusion over the way the bills were signed has prevented a potential build; however, Washington’s Kitsap PUD did consistently testify against S.B. 5383 [pdf] as it moved through the State Legislature.
It “remains to be seen how the state code reviser will address the conflicts between the [H.B.] 1336 and [S.B.] 5383, so ports and PUDs that are considering providing retail broadband will want to monitor that closely,” reports MRSC. “Since [H.B.] 1336 was adopted later in time by the legislature, presumably its broad grant of authority will override the restrictions set forth in [S.B.] 5383, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.”
Montana House Representative Kelly Kortum recently published an op-ed in the Billings Gazette criticizing the $275 million allotment of federal relief funds the Montana State Legislature appropriated under the recently enacted ConnectMT Act (S.B. 297). He wrote about how the state broadband grant program established under the legislation “favors out-of-state mega-corporations” over Montana’s local Internet providers, telecom co-ops, and residents.
“The bill requires that companies applying for the grants provide at least 20 [percent] of the funding, which effectively blocks smaller local providers from participating, as they don't have deep pockets like their larger competitors. This disadvantages our rural towns especially, as they often only have a single small provider,” writes Kortum.
“There is also the fact that taxpayers will be paying for construction costs for billion-dollar private companies. When all is said and done, these companies will own thousands of miles of [I]nternet infrastructure, profiting on it for a generation. You and your fellow ratepayers will provide that profit, and most of it will head straight to out-of-state bank accounts never to be seen in our state again.”
The Legislature “has taken this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the lives of everyday Montanans and handed it to billion dollar corporations.”
Rep. Kortum introduced legislation (H.B. 422) early on in Montana’s 2021 Legislative Session that would have allowed the state’s local governments to own and operate community broadband networks. Yet, after dozens of Republicans who had previously supported the proposal suddenly turned against it, Kortum’s bill died in a final House vote on March 2.
Kortum told the Daily Montanan in March that he attributes the bill’s failure to 11th-hour lobbying by incumbent telecommunications companies in Montana, which he believes were caught off guard by the vast support the bill initially received.
A bill recently signed into law by Texas Governor Gregg Abbott (H.B. 1715) authorizes the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to provide fiber capacity on a neutral, nondiscriminatory basis to facilitate broadband service. Yet, “the bill prohibits LCRA to agree to lease fiber capacity or facilities to a municipality to facilitate broadband service connectivity, other than for communications regarding utility operations,” reports NCSL.
Gov. Abbott also signed H.B. 5 into law in June establishing a 17-member state broadband office charged with expanding access to high-speed Internet by distributing loans and grants, creating a state broadband map, and identifying barriers to deployment. A shortcoming of the broadband plan is that it fails to include Tribal representation on the proposed board. Texas is currently one of 10 states without a state broadband fund.
The Broadband Equity Partnership, a collaboration between HR&A Advisors and CTC Technology and Energy, is hiring for full-time roles and part-time contract roles. See job openings and role descriptions here.
The San Francisco-based nonprofit, Community Tech Network, is currently seeking an Executive Managing Director. Learn more and apply here.
Computer Reach is hiring a Digital Navigator Manager to lead the program’s Digital Navigators who are responsible for providing 1:1 support to Computer Reach clients.