Community Broadband Legislation Roundup - March 15

This is the first in an ongoing series of state legislative roundups of bills that advance the prospects of success for community broadband networks. Feel free to reach out to Jericho Casper with tips or corrections.

High-Speed Hirings - Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

Investments in broadband infrastructure at the municipal level are on the rise, creating more employment opportunities in the broadband industry. Advocates for municipal broadband who feel called to make a change in their communities should check out these job openings:

Dayton, TX

Applications are being accepted for a Broadband Manager/Head Network Engineer to oversee the business and technical operations of DayNet — a new Internet utility emerging in Dayton, Texas — in the process of constructing a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Whatcom County, Washington

Applications are being accepted for two positions currently open at Whatcom County PUD: Broadband Services Analyst and Electric Utility Analyst.

The State Scene

From coast to coast, state lawmakers are aiming to create centralized broadband clearinghouses and improve permitting processes. Here’s a snapshot: 

New Mexico Legislature Seeks Reforms to Craft State Broadband Plan

With merely five days remaining in the state's legislative session, New Mexico legislators are pushing to advance bills that would set up a centralized body within the state government tasked with improving Internet access.

One of the first bills introduced during the 2021 legislative session, Senate Bill 93, the Broadband Access and Expansion Act, passed the state Senate last Wednesday, by a vote of 33-6, calling for the creation of a new Office of Broadband Access and Expansion. Padilla believed passing through the Senate would be the bill's largest obstacle.

The bill would charge the proposed Office of Broadband Access and Expansion with creating maps and collecting data about broadband access in the state, as well as setting state standards for broadband speeds. The new broadband office would look to secure matching federal funds for every dollar New Mexico invests in broadband — ”a goal that could bring in somewhere between $9 and $13 for every dollar spent by the state,” Padilla told The Paper. The new office would also work with federal, state, regional, local and tribal agencies to acquire licenses for rights of way in building broadband infrastructure.

Padilla has also introduced S.B. 361, which would allow the state’s Rural Universal Service Fund to be used for broadband. That bill has passed its first committee. 

The state’s House of Representatives has endorsed a bill similar to S.B. 93. House Bill 10, The Connect New Mexico Act, would create a broadband development plan for the state, work to acquire funding for infrastructure, and provide New Mexico residents with information about broadband availability.

Other bills being considered in the House include a proposal for a one-time allocation of $95 million for the Native American Library Internet and Education bill.

West Virginia House Passes Bill Aimed at Protecting Consumers and Easing Installation

Last week, West Virginia delegates voted 98-1 to adopt H.B. 2002, sponsored by House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell.

The bill, now pending in the state Senate, would allow for county and municipal governments to collaborate with co-ops to lead local broadband initiatives and permit broadband companies to share in the cost of utility companies’ projects, which require digging in right-of-way areas maintained by the West Virginia Division of Highways. 

The bill also provides protections for broadband customers under the state’s consumer protection laws by including provisions that would allow subscribers to file complaints with the Consumer Protection Division of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office. If the bill becomes law, when a broadband customer experiences an Internet outage that lasts for more than 24 hours, the service provider would have to credit that customer’s account with a credit equal to the duration of the outage, according to the Charleston Gazette

Montana House Kills Municipal Broadband Proposal, in Dramatic Change of Fate

Democratic-led legislation that would have allowed local governments in Montana to own or operate broadband networks died in a final House vote on March 2, after dozens of Republicans who had previously supported the proposal turned against it.

House Bill 422’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Kortum, told the Daily Montanan that he attributes its 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.  

“I expected it to fail on the House floor. It didn’t, and then the lobbying really began,” Kortum said.

On March 1, lawmakers received a series of talking points from the Montana Telecommunications Association on why they should vote "no" on the bill. The documents, dropped in lawmakers’ mailboxes the night before the vote, argued that municipal broadband networks were expensive to deploy, often overestimated local demand, and lacked successful test cases.

National News

House Dems Introduce Heap of Bills Supporting Municipal Broadband

In recent days, Capitol Hill has been bombarded with a number of bills seeking to pour new federal investments into high-speed Internet infrastructure across America. Some of the proposals support public-private partnerships to improve communities’ broadband access. 

Clyburn Reintroduces Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA)

On Thursday, House Majority Whip James Clyburn introduced a new version of H.R. 1783, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All (AAIA) Act. The legislation authorizes over $94 billion in federal funding to ensure underserved and unserved communities have affordable, high-speed Internet access. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, co-chairperson of the Senate Broadband Caucus, introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

Clyburn’s bill includes language supporting community broadband initiatives. The legislation would nullify laws in 19 states that currently inhibit local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives from delivering broadband service.

Though it is too soon to say if the bill will encourage the construction of municipal networks, removing barriers that persist at the state and local level would be a win for communities around the country eager to build locally-owned and controlled broadband networks, which runs in the opposite of direction of GOP proposals that threaten to bar public entities from providing broadband services entirely.

Clyburn’s legislation also modernizes the definition of what constitutes “broadband” to reflect the urgent need for more robust upload speeds. The bill’s updated definition considers areas lacking speeds of 25/25 Megabits per second (Mbps) to be unserved, and defines areas with low-tier service, as areas receiving service between 25/25 and 100/100 Mbps. Currently, the FCC definition of broadband is 25/3, which is widely-agreed to be insufficient to meet the download and upload needs of most Americans. 

Read more specifics on Clyburn’s bill here or you can read the full text of the bill here.

As an additional resource, check out our five-part series that explores the 2020 version of this bill

Eshoo, Golden, and Booker Revive the Community Broadband Act

On Tuesday, Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-California, and Jared Golden, D-Maine, joined with Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey to revive the Community Broadband Act, which aims to override state laws preventing local governments from building and operating municipal broadband networks.

The trio’s proposal is straightforward. The legislation would invalidate state laws that inhibit local governments from building their own broadband infrastructure, thereby "preserving the local right to self-determination in connecting communities," according to the lawmakers' joint statement.

"Our bill will help give local governments the necessary flexibility to meet the needs of their residents by removing onerous barriers to creating more municipal broadband networks and expanding access to the Internet for every community," said Booker.

In recent years, local advocates have prevented new state barriers from being erected, yet Arkansas is the only state to significantly remove barriers because the cable and telco monopolies are so strong in state capitals.