Analysis: After Election, Broadband Proponents Need to Go Local

Americans may be split in national politics, but when the topic is broadband, voters of all persuasions are supporting fewer restrictions on community-sponsored networks. The future of federal funding is uncertain, but that doesn't have to stop communities from moving forward with municipal, cooperative, and public-private broadband initiatives.

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The Trump campaign offered no significant hints on telecommunications policies during the election. The only clue was when the candidate spoke of the potential AT&T/Time Warner merger. Donald Trump spoke about the anti-competitive nature of the proposed deal when he said, “Deals like this destroy democracy.”

Combining that statement with the campaign promise that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington (referring to the lobbyists in Washington, D.C.), there was a glimmer of hope among broadband advocates. But then recent news reports stated that the president-elect’s transition team is rife with lobbyist from K Street in D.C., so it’s probably safe to assume this includes a few representing telecom incumbents.

So what should rural communities, co-ops and other entities do if they do end up being locked out of the D.C. broadband cash flow party? Use the local bipartisan support that public broadband enjoys to wage multi-tiered aggressive advocacy, strategic partnering, and deal-making.

 

All (broadband) politics is local

As Congressional legend Tip O’Neill said decades ago, the skill and successes you bring to the local political scene is what propels you to success at the state or national level. Right now, community broadband is locally a bipartisan objective, and because of that we should achieve its notable successes.

Consider Colorado. In this past election, Dolores County saw 76 percent of voters supporting Donald Trump, while in Boulder County Hillary Clinton received 71 percent of the votes. Yet both communities joined 24 other jurisdictions of all political persuasions passing referenda that returned their rights to build public networks. After vigorous voter-education activities before the measures went on the ballots, these referenda passed with 75 percent or more of the votes, similar to levels of support displayed by 70 communities that voted during the past year.

Of the 21 states with muni-network restrictions, four additional states require communities to pass referenda before they can build, including Wisconsin. This requirement is fairly easy in concept, though communities need to understand their respective legislation’s fine print. John Le Brun, information services manager for the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, warns cities to “be prepared for waiting periods, incumbents’ rights of first refusal, stringent financial analysis and possibly a referendum. We went through the process and we have network in place. Be prepared for a lot of work.”

It would definitely behoove communities in states with restrictions to have city or county legal counsel extensively examine the statutes. Currently lots of people erroneously believe their states’ laws strictly prohibit municipal broadband when, in fact, the restrictions are manageable. Because many of the laws were written between 2003 and 2006, in some towns there are few local government officials who remember the particulars of those bills.

Within the past year, likely inspired heavily by the successes of Colorado communities, a number of towns and counties are reading the fine print and moving ahead in bipartisan harmony. “In Michigan, Marshall and Holland are both exploring muni broadband and their referendum procedures fairly deliberately while others are exploring their options,” said Michael Watza , an attorney who focuses on legislative law.

“Broadband-related referenda in Minnesota aren’t a big issue,” states Danna MacKenzie, executive director for the Office of Broadband Development. “Communities continue to focus more on public-private partnerships and the engagement of both telephone and electric cooperatives.”

Typically Republican-heavy legislatures and GOP governors are anti-muni networks. However, in the last year some conservatives in states with and without legislative restrictions are now more conciliatory. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin lately has made broadband a main priority, and believes public, private and other options should be considered. The state has an ongoing grant program to facilitate these types of partnerships, and the University of Wisconsin is hosting a conference in December on public private partnerships.

Kentucky’s GOP Governor Matt Bevin inherited a broadband public-private partnership from his Democratic predecessor and says he supports the nation’s first statewide network project. In a statement he said, “Our administration is fully committed to the KentuckyWired project and we are excited at the possibilities before us as a result of its completion.” But the project is behind schedule, and Bevin has scaled it back to cover only the eastern portion of the state.

The governors’ offices in several states with restrictions on public-owned networks are proactively reviewing current and future broadband policies, and pro-public broadband advocates should have seats at the table.

 

What’s in your legislative strategy plan?

Every community should have a plan for dealing with their legislators. When you break it down, it is just a handful of men and women who can help (or hinder) millions of taxpayers receive the benefits of public-owned broadband. You could load most states’ legislatures into two or three buses.

Some Republican legislators are gearing up to aggressively tackle their respective state prohibitions against public broadband. A grassroots drive led by Wilson, North Carolina and two state legislators will take on that state’s prohibition against community broadband, which was the subject of a federal court case this year. In Alabama, State Senator Tom Whatley (R-Auburn) introduced legislation this year to rescind the state law that restricts muni networks, but that was defeated. He plans to introduce the bill again. Tennessee State Senator Janice Bowling (R- Tullahoma) and Rep. Kevin Brooks (R- Cleveland) have been relentless champions for local choice, and are almost certain to take up the fight in January.

It is safe to say that there are state legislators who represent rural as well as urban areas and who face an interesting tug of war between constituent interests and partisan politics. The increasing needs for economic development and K-12 education solutions that broadband can resolve is trumping the conservative orthodoxy that takes a dim view of government intervention. Unlike in Washington, bipartisanship might have a chance at the state level.

Whether or not community broadband applicants hope to have any sway in Washington politics will depend on state legislators’ ability and willingness to lobby their congressional counterparts. Because there may not be much hope for an audience with the Trump administration.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” He also hosts the Gigbit Nation talk show and writes about key broadband issues.

 

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