Communities Take the Search for Broadband Into Their Own Hands

More and more small communities are coming together to explore ways to access high-speed broadband, even if that means changing some existing laws.

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2017 has been a great year for winning legislative battles against bills threatening to curb or eliminate municipal broadband networks. For example:

  • Missouri: anti-muni bill defeated;
  • Tennessee: co-op won, muni lost in compromise bill that became law;
  • Virginia: anti-muni bill also defeated;
  • Maine: anti-muni bill DOA, sponsors killed it within day of introducing it.

Constituents were able to work without the threat of punitive legislation in several states. West Virginia and Georgia are among those states whose legislators have opted to work with communities. These lawmakers believe public networks as one more option for advancing broadband.

 

Who knew the stakes would be so high in West Virginia

“Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” Nor Frontier, apparently, when scorned by a state legislator. West Virginia legislators this year passed a bill that makes it easier for cities to bring broadband to poorly served constituents. Frontier vigorously opposed the bill while legislators, including the leader of the state senate, supported it overwhelmingly.

Soon after the vote, Frontier fired West Virginia Senate President, Republican Mitch Carmichael, who also was a sales manager for the state’s biggest ISP. According to the company, Senator Carmichael left because of “a reduction in workforce.” Local press in the state speculated this was payback for Carmichael’s support of the bill.

Carmichael might be temporarily unemployed, but constituents are thankful for the new law.

West Virginia now allows as few as 20 individuals or organization to form co-ops devoted to deploying broadband. This makes operating networks cheaper and funding them easier because co-ops are nonprofit organizations. As such, co-ops enjoy tax breaks while those who donate to co-ops get a tax write-off. Co-ops exist for the benefit of the communities, which is reflected in lower subscription prices, plus profits that co-ops earn are returned to their members.

Legislators also didn’t want to create a situation similar to Tennessee where a city can only build the network within its boundaries. The new law in West Virginia allows for up to three cities to share one network infrastructure. Furthermore, cities can build networks even where there are incumbent networks already in place.

The Legislature also established the Broadband Enhancement Council to “explore any and all ways to expand access to broadband services.” Among its other responsibilities, the Council is to gather data regarding the various speeds provided to consumers in comparison to what is advertised. The council will also receive and dispense funds appropriated for its use by the Legislature or other funding sources.

 

Georgia on my mind

The Georgia Legislature gathered feedback rural constituents from an effort lead by the State House and Senate Study Committee on Highspeed Broadband Communications Access for All Georgians. They conducted six public meetings and explored options for getting broadband into more parts of rural Georgia.

The committee’s report includes findings on the various impacts of the broadband, and offers recommendations for increasing coverage. They also evaluated various state grant programs that fund broadband deployment.

Community broadband advocates welcomed the committee’s recommendation that signals its support of municipal networks. “Reaffirm the state’s approval of competitive telecommunication markets by continuing to permit locally-owned and operated government broadband services.”

In the past a few legislators have attempted – unsuccessfully – to pass anti-muni network laws. Some hope that the Georgia legislature follows this recommendation and emulating West Virginia by writing legislation that support these networks.

“In my opinion, if cities want to build these networks, they should,” says House member Don Parsons and the House Co-chair of the Committee. “There are several examples of success. I trust that the voters will take the right direction, and if there are problems, the voters will straighten them out. Of course, there are different points of view in the legislature. I know one of the legislators who introduced a bill restricting municipal networks. He wasn’t oppose to them, per se, he wanted to make sure the taxpayers were protected.”

Another recommendation was to establish a fund that facilitates broadband deployment. Parsons says that if a fund actually were created, legislators would look carefully at whether cities would be allowed to access these monies. “A concern that we would have is, how to ensure a city chooses technology that isn’t in danger of becoming obsolete. Broadband technology changes so fast.”

Constituents also should appreciate the recommendation to define broadband speeds “that track to the Federal Communications Commission definition” (25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload). But this, along with the other recommendations, has a long way to go from report to legislation.

 

Convert your legislators into partners

West Virginia and Georgia are two states where communities have made many of their legislators co-contributors in the quest for better broadband, though West Virginia is decidedly further along that path. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative went even further and developed partnerships with their New Mexico legislators.

At one time, New Mexico had a statute that forbade co-ops from providing broadband services. Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes, Jr., began a systematic campaign of building local political support that was rolled up into state political support.

“We started by getting face time with elected officials at local levels to educate them about broadband. Not just mayors and city council, but anyone who ran for elected office who would benefit by having better broadband.” The co-op also got involved with economic development projects in the three counties it services, and developed a track record of success stories.

By supporting projects that directly brought jobs to the communities, Kit Carson built strong credibility. They then educated the communities on how broadband would bring jobs to the area. With the support built among constituents and elected officials, the co-op generated 1000 letters of support for their broadband plans, which they leveraged with state legislators to get the restrictive law removed.

Furthermore, Kit Carson created allies by partnering with lawmakers to help legislators implement their economic development initiatives. “Cities always go to the legislature asking for something,” said Reyes. “But we developed relationships because legislators could count on us to deliver support from our 29,000 customers.”

 

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