Tag: "legislation"

Posted May 21, 2010 by christopher

The latest attack on publicly owned broadband networks in North Carolina now has an official name - S1209: No Nonvoted Local Debt For Competing System and will apparently be debated in committee next week.

This bill is meant to stomp out any competition from community-owned broadband networks - the only real threat to Time Warner and other absentee-owned incumbent operators in the state. Not only would this bill create high hurdles for communities that want to build broadband networks, it also could prevent existing networks from upgrading or expanding. The community-owned networks in Wilson and Salisbury are the most advanced broadband networks in the state.

It is not clear, but the law may even bar communities from building networks with federal funds, as under the broadband stimulus projects, for instance. A coalition of local governments, concerned citizens, and private businesses (some noted here) are coming together to stop this attempt to keep North Carolina locked into the last-generation networks of AT&T and Time Warner.

In previous years, similar efforts to prevent community networks all suggested that local governments derived unfair advantages because they could finance their networks with tax dollars (though very few community networks have taken that approach). Now the same people are arguing that local governments should only be able to finance networks with taxpayer-backed bonds - a dead giveaway that those pushing to limit community broadband have no higher principle than protecting incumbent operators from competition.

As we have chronicled in coverage of North Carolina, several newspapers have come out against this bill - most recently the Winston-Salem Journal:

The Journal has long argued that government borrowing without a vote of the people is both unwise and unconstitutional. But that is borrowing backed by the "full faith and credit" of the borrower, in this case, the people of the jurisdiction involved. So, if that is what the telecoms want, we support them.

But that protection is already written into the state constitution...

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Posted May 7, 2010 by christopher

Time Warner, AT&T, and other incumbents have radically changed their strategy to prevent broadband competition in North Carolina via new restrictions that are being debated in the Legislature currently. This switch in strategy offers more proof that they stand on no principle aside from protecting their monopoly.

The famous HB 1252 in North Carolina is back... but different. In the past, the telcos and cablecos have argued that municipal broadband networks are unfair to them because the city could use tax dollars in some way to build the network (ignoring that most publicly owned networks do not use any tax dollars). Now, these companies are pushing a bill to require financing backed by taxpayer dollars. Seems like an odd switcheroo.

As one might expect from companies like AT&T and Time Warner, who have no respect for the public process, the bill was kept top secret until debated in committee, giving only the side filled with monied interests and lawyers an opportunity to prepare. The bill (that we have made available here as there is no official version yet) would not just place significant restrictions on new publicly owned networks, but would also handcuff existing networks like Salisbury and Greenlight in Wilson.

To reiterate, this bill will damage the most advanced broadband networks available in North Carolina today. Sounds like North Carolina wants to take up Mayor Joey Durel in Lafayette on his offer to welcome the businesses moving from North Carolina to Lafayette with a big pot of gumbo.

Fascinating that after an FCC Commissioner noted that the US Broadband Plan recognizes the right for communities to build their own broadband infrastructure, North Carolina is deciding it prefers to preclude any broadband competition, sticking with its last-century DSL and cable. Just fascinating.

The Salisbury Post has been watching and recently published a scathing editorial against the bill. This is one paragraph, but the whole editorial is well worth reading.

Yet, if the HB 1252's intent becomes reality, such areas will be severely hobbled in their near-term ability to tap into the broadband revolution. Private...

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Posted April 26, 2010 by christopher

After focusing on the North Carolina battle at the Legislature (regarding whether cities should be allowed to choose to build their own broadband networks or if they should solely have to beg the private sector for investment), I wanted to check in on Salisbury, which is building a FTTH network.

Salisbury has persevered through many obstacles, including finding financing for the project in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. They will begin serving customers this August.

After choosing the name "Fibrant" as the name of the network, they have established a slick web presence at fibrant.com. The site has a a blog, but is rarely updated currently.

Earlier in the month, the local paper discussed the ways in which the fiber network will aid public safety. The short answer is video, video, video.

Video can be used for security cameras (both in public places and in private homes) as well as to give officers better situational awareness when they arrive on a scene. But wireless video access is often the key - both so officers can stream video in the cruiser and because wireless video cameras are easier to place (no pesky wires to run) and move around.

Though wireless video is helpful, it creates of a lot of data that is best moved across fast, reliable, wired networks. This is why fiber-optic networks and wireless are better understood as complements than substitutes. A robust fiber architecture greatly eases the problems incurred by creating a wireless network because the wireless nodes will be more efficient if all are tied into a fiber network. Rather than streaming data across the entire city to send a single feed to a cruiser, a local access point will stream it across a smaller footprint.

"They are potentially looking at helmet cams," Doug Paris said, assistant to the city manager. "Those who are sitting outside (the structure) will be able to see what's going on inside."

It would make little sense for the fireman to have wires coming out of their helmets. But that wireless signal from the helmet probably won't propagate to the fire hall or police station. Instead, a wireless access point near the fire can grab the signal and make it available to anyone...

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Posted April 25, 2010 by christopher

Time Warner continues to fight for monopoly protections in North Carolina with legislation to hamstring municipalities, preventing them from building the essential broadband infrastructure they need. While I was in Lafayette at FiberFete, the North Carolina Legislature was considering a bill to preempt local authority, essentially shutting down the prospect for any cable and broadband competition in the state.

Jay Ovittore has covered this legislation in depth.

Salisbury small businessman Brad Walser, owner of Walser Technology Group testified that North Carolina community’s new municipal broadband network Fibrant would meet his company’s needs for broadband capacity not available from commercial providers. Walser noted Salisbury is suffering from an unemployment rate exceeding 14 percent. Advanced broadband, he believes, could help the city attract new businesses that will help create new, high paying jobs. Fibrant is expected to launch later this year.

Folks from Chattanooga also testified about the benefits of publicly owned networks. The public outcry on the issue has been helpful:

All of your e-mails and calls have been getting through to the legislators. This kind of attention makes them nervous and I ask you to continue. I can assure you that we here at Stop the Cap!, along with Communities United for Broadband, Broadband for Everyone NC, and Save North Carolina Broadband are going to ratchet up attention on this issue.

If you live in North Carolina, definitely read the bottom of the post on how to help.

Unfortunately, the state legislature seems to have more nitwits than anyone who knows anything about networks: one State Senator suggested wireless will be replacing fiber soon - one wonders how the wireless tower will connect to the Internet... magic?

North Carolina could become the 19th...

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Posted April 16, 2010 by christopher

Stop the Cap! sounded the alarm that North Carolina is once again considering a bill to prevent competition by effectively banning communities from building their own networks.

The Communities United for Broadband Facebook page notes:

The cable industry will be pushing a bill to stop communities from investing in fiber optic infrastructure on April 21st at 9:30am in Raleigh before the Revenue Laws Committee in room 544 of the Legislative Office Building found at 46 W. Lane St, Raleigh, NC.

This bill is being pushed by the private cable and telephone companies that are threatened by the publicly owned FTTH networks already in Wilson and Salisbury. North Carolina has a number of communities that have been inspired by the Gigabit promise of Google and are considering how they can build their own network if Google does not choose them. This bill will prevent communities from building the infrastructure they need to succeed in the future.

I should note that Craig Settles is working with the Communities United for Broadband folks. They have a great slogan: Picking up Where Google Leaves Off.

Posted March 4, 2010 by christopher

Minnesota is one of the eighteen states that have enacted specific barriers to prevent the public sector from building networks (protecting incumbents from any competition). It presently has the uniquely high - 65% - referendum requirement on communities that want to build a network that will offer telephone services (which thereby includes all fiber-to-the-home triple play networks).

However, up in Cook County, they could not meet that threshold. They had a referendum in which 56% voted yes - a majority but not satisfactorily large for a 1915 MN law. State Representative Dill and Senator Bakk realized this was crazy - state law set too high a bar for the County they represented. Cook would be unable to build the network they need - remember that the whole County was isolated following a single fiber cut because Qwest does not invest in communities where profits are scant (let's not blame Qwest though - private companies are not supposed to be charities and they should not be expected to build the essential infrastructure communities need).

Rep Dill and Sen Bakk introduced a bill to reduce the 65% to 50% referendum but the private providers must have thrown some sort of tantrum. Before the bill could even be heard, incumbent providers had reached some sort of a deal with Rep Dill and Sen Bakk, agreeing that they would not oppose the bill if it only applied to Cook County. Cook would be able to build its network, but all other local governments, many very rural and in similar but not equal severity, would be stuck with the 65% referendum requirement if they wanted to build a similar network. In the House, this "compromise" has flown through multiple committees with little debate.

In the Senate, some fought back, wondering if perhaps massive incumbent providers shouldn't be the ones to determine if communities can build modern networks -- especially when the providers won't. So the bill was introduced in the Senate. It was quickly amended to the incumbent demanded-text, but was then amended back again to a 50% majority for all MN (better than the 65% in current law). This was all in the Senate Committee dealing with Telecom. Confused yet?

It was next forwarded to the Committee dealing with Local Government, where the...

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Posted February 10, 2010 by christopher

The Design Nine blog alerted me to a bill in New Hampshire that would modify state law to allow communities to build publicly owned networks. It appears they may currently invest in a network in unserved areas -- though few places are entirely unserved. Most places have pitifully slow and overpriced DSL available to at least some residents. This bill would expand their authority to build networks.

Unfortunately, I have no sense of how likely this is to pass. The story in the Concord Monitor suggests it is seeing intense opposition from the usual sources - the private companies that want to decide alone who gets access to the Internet at what speed and at what price.

Unfortunately, the proponents of the change appear poised to limit themselves to a purely open access model - a limitation that could greatly hurt them as they build a network. Communities must be free to choose a business model that works, not have it imposed by a "compromise" at the legislature.

Requiring open access actually compromises the vitality of the network. Open access is an incredibly powerful idea - introducing real competition where people have long had no choices. But no community has yet made it work financially from the start. The early years are brutal for a network where the owner cannot provide services -- there are difficulties in aligning the incentives for those involved and generally insufficient revenue to make debt payments in the early years.

Communities must fight for the right to offer services, even if they would prefer not to. Offering services generates more revenue when it is most needed - the early years. Allowing Comcast and FairPoint to define the business models of communities is poor policy. The New Hampshire legislation - HB 1242 - is available here.

We wish communities like nDanville and the Wired Road luck as they expand to citywide networks on an entirely open access basis. However, existing experience suggests that communities should focus first on getting the numbers to work and then opening the network to greater competition down the road.

Posted December 2, 2009 by christopher

Our community broadband preemption map has merged with the community broadband map.

Posted August 27, 2009 by christopher

Folks who are mostly interested in broadband are probably unfamiliar with video franchising laws. Many people still apparently believe that cable companies are able to get exclusive franchises from the city (granting them a monopoly on providing cable television). However, that is not true and has not been true for many years.

Most cable companies still have a de facto monopoly because it is extremely difficult to overbuild an existing cable company - the incumbent has most of the advantages and building a citywide network is extremely expensive. This is not a naturally competitive market; it is actually a natural monopoly.

However, most people want a choice in providers (something that goes beyond a single cable company and a satellite option or two depending on whether you rent/own and your geographic location. In talking with many local officials and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers (NATOA), it seems that almost every local government wants more competition in its community too.

This is where telephone and cable company lobbyists have stepped in - more successfully at the state level than at the federal level. They have convinced legislators that the barrier to more competition is local authority over the franchise (the rules a company agrees to in return for the right to use the community's Right-of-Way in deploying their network). These rules include red-line prohibition (you cannot refuse to serve poor neighborhoods), an affordable "basic" tier of service, local public access channels, broadband connections at public buildings, etc.

Some states have listened to the lobbyists and enacted statewide franchising - where local communities are stripped of the authority to manage their Right-of-Way and companies can offer video services anywhere in the state by getting a state franchise from the state government. Every year, we gather more data that this practice has hurt communities, raised prices, and barely spurred any competition. Most of the competition it is credited with spurring came from Verizon's FiOS deployments, which would have occurred regardless of state-wide franchise enactment.

This touches directly on broadband because the statewide franchises often give greater power to companies like Verizon to cherry-pick who gets next generation broadband. Wealthier neighborhoods will increasingly get access to faster...

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Posted August 12, 2009 by christopher

What can states do?

Many states want to improve broadband access for their citizens. Some states genuinely want to act and others are content to give some money to industry-front group Connected Nation and form a Task Force in order to give the appearance that they are doing something rather than actually taking action.

However, the problem is difficult because in a time of severe budget crunches, states may not have the funds to invest directly in infrastructure or help communities do so themselves. There are some options - and I recently highlighted one: Virginia's Broadband Infrastructure Loan Fund.

The Virginia Resources Authority (VRA) now has a revolving loan fund to help communities build the broadband infrastructure they need. Unfortunately, the fund has started empty but they are in search of grants to get started until the state can seed it.

Even without the revolving loan fund, which keeps a very low interest rate for loans, the VRA is available to help communities that want to approach the capital markets for infrastructure funds. Communities may not have sufficient experience in this arena or may just benefit by having the VRA combine multiple small needs into a larger package at a better rate.

Elsewhere, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority was supposed to serve a similar function but seemed to be immediately captured by Fairpoint and turned into a tool for private companies.

One of the most basic things a state should do is ensure it has not created barriers to public investments in broadband networks. It may be a few years old, but the American Public Power Association created a list of laws blocking or retarding community broadband networks. These should be repealed. Those arguing that the public sector has too many advantages should read our discussion about the level playing field.

Capitol photo by Rob Pongsajapan

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