This is Episode 6 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Cheryl Leanza, a broadband consultant with the Progressive States Network, joins the show to discuss telecommunication policy. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and the editor of muninetworks.org. Today we're talking with Cheryl Leanza, a broadband consultant with the Progressive States Network. We discuss what states have been doing to change telecommunications policy, picking up where last weeks show left off. In addition to community broadband bands, we talk about efforts to deregulate all telecommunications services, and how people can get involved to make sure legislatures are responding to real problems, not just doing what big cable and telephone companies tell them to. Here's our interview with Cheryl Leanza. I'm here with Cheryl Leanza, the broadband consultant with Progressive States Network, and we're excited to talk to you today, thanks for coming on the show.
Cheryl: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Progressive States Network does in the area of telecommunications?
Cheryl: Sure. The Progressive States Network, one of it's primary focuses is, generally speaking, economic security. We have a economic blueprint which offers state legislators around the country some models and suggestions for how to ensure that all Americans receive the economic security. In telecommunications, the big focus has been on community media, making sure that broadband reaches all Americans, and that it's reliable, and it can help grow the economy and create jobs.
Christopher: Now when you say the media and broadband, so you're looking at media not just television and radio, but obviously where it's going in the future, is that right?
Cheryl: Absolutely. The big focus has been on high speed internet or broadband, making sure that everyone, as our economy, as our jobs, as our social service networks and benefits networks move to the new place online and on the internet, that all Americans can benefit from that.
Christopher: The Progressive States Network, you work mainly with states and state legislatures and so you're really focused on a session timetable, can you tell us what you've been working on over the course of this year?
Cheryl: We try to track, with the resources that we have, what's happening in telecommunications in the state legislature, it's exactly what you said. Particularly what we try to do is draw connections between various state legislatures. If there's a trend that we see, or some particularly positive proposals that we see, we try to encourage them and highlight them, provide legislators with analysis. The two areas we've been looking at this year mainly are community broadband, or municipal, or public broadband, and the other area is a slate of deregulation bills that have been moving through the states.
Christopher: Lets start with the community broadband, it's something that obviously we've been most concerned with at Community Broadband Networks, our website. I know I've worked with you in Georgia and South Carolina, and in some other places as well, and so maybe you can just recap what happened earlier this year.
Cheryl: There's a few bills that we were looking at. One bill that's been a positive bill that we've been hoping will get through the legislature has been one in Washington which was HB1711 by John McCoy, and that's a bill that enhanced some of the opportunities in the state of Washington. Unfortunately that didn't get anywhere. Obviously some of the big fights were in Georgia and South Carolina. In Georgia the good news is that there was a really bad bill that was diverted, and it turned into a study bill which I think is much better. Unfortunately the news in South Carolina is not as good, it wasn't great in South Carolina to begin with, and now it seems to be even worse, so that's been a little disappointing. Frankly that's been the biggest challenge is to really change the dynamic of the conversation in the states, unfortunately I think that conversation already starts painting municipal broadband as a threat to deployment and accessibility by everyone, and in fact we think it's the opposite.
Christopher: Right, and that's some of the, I think that is some of the best work that you guys do, which is focusing on positive things that states can do. I tried to help out as well in Washington and it's been a several year effort to allow them, or to encourage the legislature to repeal some of the restrictions they have. I really want to encourage our readers to take a look at what states can do in a positive way. We've seen positive bills in New Hampshire and Tennessee, and it's hard for them to get out of committee because groups like yours, you provide a needed analysis, but constituents really have to get involved if we're going to make any progress I think.
Cheryl: That's absolutely right, and I think that for most people around the country, the challenge is that state legislative process is very opaque, it's hard for them to understand how to do what needs to be done. What I could really encourage anybody who's very interested in this, is to look at the state that you're interested in, and go onto the legislature website and find the committee that does utility regulations, sometimes it's the commerce committee, sometimes utilities is in the name, but look at those legislators and see if you can start developing relationships by just emailing them, or setting up meetings, or finding other people in your community who live in their district, because those guys are the first ones that the telecommunications companies go to when they're trying to pass their legislation. We need to be sure that they know that there are other viewpoints out there that really can promote and serve the public interest that they need to listen to.
Christopher: Right, and in addition to that, you can also ask people like me for help, and there's others out there who are willing to offer help if you just need a sense of where to turn, or where you can find some allies. It's important that we all work together on this.
Cheryl: That's absolutely right, that's absolutely right, and I think Progressive States Network is similarly situated, we're happy to offer materials and support and suggestions, but I can't stress enough the importance of people in their own states, and the community members and small business leaders really reaching out to legislators, because that's the only way that progress ever happens, and that's really the people that the legislative really hears from voters in their districts, they are going to sit up and take notice.
Christopher: We see that time and time again. We talk with legislators who only hear from lobbyists on cable and broadband issues, so it's really important that people get out there and talk. The other bill that we didn't mention that we should just mention in passing is the Minnesota bill that also looked at, it would have been one of the worst bills for stopping community networks from even, communities would not even have been allowed to build networks to connect schools. It was really bad, but fortunately that didn't go anywhere. I really want to turn to something that has gotten even less attention, and that's this matter of deregulating the telephone or telecommunications access. It's really something that is totally shrouded in lawyer talk, and very difficult language, but you've really put a lot of effort into making sure that peoples interests are served, the communities interests are served. Can you tell us about some of these state by state fights?
Cheryl: Sure. The big picture is that the telephone companies are trying to get deregulated, and they're getting deregulated in two different ways. One way is they're trying to get free of any obligations with respect to the old phone system, so your regular old phone with the copper wires that you have used for many years, that system they're trying to deregulate. In addition, they're trying to do something forward looking and get everything that is related to a service that uses internet protocol deregulated, so they're trying to deregulate the past and the future all at the same time, sometimes different bills, sometimes in the same legislation, but they're trying to do both. It means that by the time you get to the end there's not going to be any protections for anyone.
Christopher: When you say protections and deregulated, what do you really mean? How does this impact a person who is living in one of these states?
Cheryl: Sure, it's a great question. Right now most states require the phone company to serve everybody in the state, so you move to a new house, you move to an apartment, you call up the company, you get your phone, there's not a question, you're allowed to get that. The reason is because there's a law, there's a regulation that says you are able to get that. The deregulation that we're talking about at one level is just you might not be able to get a phone, because there's no obligation by that company to serve your house or your apartment.
Christopher: Right, and so what states have we seen this pass successfully so far?
Christopher: I can help you with some of the past ones, I know Kansas and Wisconsin did it in previous years.
Cheryl: Right, Kansas and Wisconsin did it in previous years, Colorado I think had proposed it.
Christopher: That was actually a fascinating fight that I haven't had enough time to get into. A gentleman by the name of Eric Cecil was involved with that, and is a contact that I think helped to push a better vision, and neither ended up succeeding in Colorado.
Cheryl: Alabama did it this year, a few other states have done it last year. Indiana did it this year, well it will end in 2014 in Indiana, so the legislation changes as of 2014. North Carolina did it. These are states in particular where the rural areas will be hard hit. Rural areas and elderly people are the hardest hit by the legislation that removes your ability to get your phone service, the old fashioned phone service.
Christopher: I believe there was a major fight in Kentucky, and in some other places where consumers were able to stop this anti consumer legislation.
Cheryl: That's right, Kentucky is a really great success story where there's a group of consumer groups that all got together, including the ARP, including the unions, all got together and said look, this is a terrible idea, you can't pass this legislation, and fortunately it didn't get through this year. I think we always have to be vigilant for next year. Then you have to look at the legislation that's about the new technology as well.
Christopher: Okay, and can you tell us what's going on in California, because I think there's a mix of both there, and that's been a pretty good fight.
Cheryl: That one was both, California was both, although a lot of it there is based on what we're calling internet protocol. Lots of people have heard, you know you have new kinds of phone service that you can get, it's VOIP, Voice Over Internet Protocol, and for most consumers it just seems like telephone service that you get. Sometimes you get it from your old phone company like Horizon, but you get it via a service called FIOS, sometimes you can get phone service from Time Warner Cable. All those phone services actually happen partially over the internet, so it's an internet protocol enabled service. It sounds very highfalutin and fancy, but the truth of the matter is that actually most phone service these days has some component that is affected by internet protocol. The phone companies argue, they propose this legislation saying, "Look, it's a new technology, we don't any regulatory safeguards." The truth of the matter is, most people are relying on these services just like they relied on their own phone service. If you have your phone service from Time Warner, or Cox Cable, you still need to call 911, you'd still need to call your grandmother if she's sick, so you're relying on that phone service just the same way you've relied on the old phone service. What these new bills are saying is that the state doesn't have anything to say about it if that phone service goes out, it doesn't have anything to say about the cost, it doesn't have anything to say anything about the reliability. It really leaves consumers and people in the lurch.
Christopher: Where can I go if I live in any state to find out what's happening in my state, or to get some updates on this?
Cheryl: Sure, well you can go to the Progressive States Network website, we have a blog and dispatch which is progressivestates.org., you can go to the state legislatures, and of course you can use the MuniNetwork site, I know they post information as well.
Christopher: Is there any other developments that we should be paying attention to in the area of broadband and state legislatures?
Cheryl: I think those are the big ones, and really it's just keeping an eye open for what's happening on those three areas, and not being fooled by the idea that some of these things are affecting, that they won't really impact consumers, because at the end of the day, you know we never know when there's going to be a massive outage. For example, one really good example is recently in the state of Virginia, 911 service went out, and nobody really understands why, and they're trying to figure that out. This infrastructure is really critical, so we need to keep looking at it. Generally speaking, I think just keeping an eye on some of these great websites, like MuniNetworks and progressivestates.org, and we'll keep you updated.
Christopher: Thank you for coming on the show and talking with us today.
Cheryl: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: That was Cheryl Leanza, the broadband consultant with Progressive States Network at progressivestates.org. To learn more, visit our show page on muninetworks.org where we have links to some of the materials discussed on the show. If you have any questions or comments, please tell us directly. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets. This show was released on July 31st, 2012. Thanks to my colleague, Lisa Gonzalez for putting the show together, and fit in the conniptions for the music, licensed through creative commons, this song is called Storm Go.