Nebraska Lawmaker Looks to Shuck Muni Broadband Restrictions - Again

Even as high-speed Internet access is widely considered a basic utility akin to electricity and clean water, there are still 17 states with preemption laws that either ban publicly-owned broadband networks or have barriers that make it all but impossible for municipalities to compete with monopoly Internet Service Providers. This, despite the major incumbents having received billions in taxpayer subsidies over the years and having failed to deliver universally reliable and affordable connectivity.

However, as it has become increasingly clear that the private market alone is not going to solve America’s connectivity crisis, last year two states (Arkansas and Washington) rolled back their preemption laws that were protecting monopoly incumbent providers from competition, allowing local and regional governmental entities to build the telecommunications infrastructure their residents need.

Now, one Nebraska lawmaker has recently filed a bill that, if passed, would significantly remove his state’s current barriers to municipal broadband. Nebraska State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha filed LB916 last week with the state legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

As it stands now, according to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), Nebraska “generally prohibits agencies or political subdivisions of the state, other than public power utilities, from providing wholesale or retail broadband, Internet, telecommunications or cable service. Public power utilities are permanently prohibited from providing such services on a retail basis, and they can sell or lease dark fiber on a wholesale basis only under severely limited conditions. For example, a public power utility cannot sell or lease dark fiber at rates lower than the rates incumbents are charging in the market in question.” 

Bill to Let Local Communities Decide on Broadband

As reported by The Daily Nonpareil, Wayne’s proposed bill “would create a process allowing first- and second-class cities, as well as villages, to provide municipal broadband services if the city or village is in an underserved or unserved area.”

During the Feb. 15 hearing on the bill, Wayne noted that Arkansas and Washington rolled back its preemption laws and made the case for why broadband should be considered a utility like water and electricity, as well as why it was crucial for there to be local control and ownership of the infrastructure.

He then outlined a general framework that would allow local communities in Nebraska to make their own determination if they were well served or not by existing ISPs and how, should those communities decide they were not adequately served, the bill would allow for a community vote as to whether a municipality could move forward in building, owning and possibly operating a city or town-wide network.

When asked by a committee member whether Wayne’s proposal would allow for municipalities to offer retail Internet service to end-users or be limited to the open-access approach whereby a municipality builds and owns the infrastructure and then leases the network to multiple ISPs, Wayne said that should be left up to the local community.

Still, Wayne said, he was open to the idea of amending the bill to address questions and concerns raised by committee members. 

Prospects Dim Without Local Advocacy

Last year, Wayne filed a similar bill which was ultimately shelved after it failed to garner enough support among state lawmakers. This time around, Wayne fears the bill will die in committee once again, which is why he was hoping the bill could be filed with the state legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee, which Wayne chairs.

Already proponents and opponents of the bill are lining up. On the proponent side is AARP Nebraska and the League of Nebraska Municipalities who testified about the essential nature of broadband and its impact on quality of life.

Predictably, the president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, Tip O'Neill, testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that broadband is "nothing like a public utility" because the cost of broadband service is lower than traditional utility bills.  

Of course, besides the fact that Americans pay among the highest Internet service costs of anywhere in the developed world, what O’Neill left out of his testimony are all the ancillary benefits that come with community-owned networks. And it goes far beyond the price point of an average monthly bill – not the least of which is the fundamental link between resilient community-wide telecommunication infrastructure and economic development, enhancement of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, the boon to real estate values, as well as improving health outcomes and healthcare costs-savings associated with robust telehealth services, all of which require reliable robust networks accessible to all, most especially those least able to afford it.

If recent history is any indication, we won’t hold our breath in the hopes this bill will pass. But, if the more well-known Tip O’Neill is right that “all politics is local,” a mobilization of local voices from across the state demanding Nebraska remove itself from the list of states with the dubious distinction of maintaining preemption laws that stifle competition and local Internet choice at a time when broadband access is more crucial than ever, it could provide the impetus for the Cornhusker State to wrest itself from the clutches of monopoly interests in favor of local solutions and consumer choice.

A Lesson in Lincoln

In fact, state lawmakers might look to Lincoln, Nebraska as a model for one way a municipality can partner with a private provider to offer future-proof fiber connectivity. As we reported here, Lincoln launched a conduit project in 2012, taking advantage of downtown redevelopment to deploy conduit along public Rights-of-Way. As of 2016, the city had spent approximately $1.2 million building and maintaining the 300-mile-long conduit network. ALLO Communications, a Nebraska-based Internet service provider (ISP), entered into a partnership with the city of about 285,000 with ALLO leasing access to Lincoln’s extensive conduit system, which helped speed up a city-wide buildout and lowered the costs of construction for ALLO.

The partnership produced notable benefits for Lincoln. Residents and businesses got access to high-quality broadband from more providers than before, and the city was able to implement connectivity programs for Lincoln’s schools, traffic lights, and other public facilities. The conduit leases also brought extra revenue for the city. When he was on the Community Broadband Bits podcast in 2016, Lincoln’s Right-of-Way Manager David Young estimated that the city would be receiving more than $2 million annually in fees by 2018. 

Header image of Nebraska State Capitol courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Inline image of Nebraska highway sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)