Battling for Broadband in the Statehouses
[imgbelt img=wiscbudget530.jpg]Since when did community broadband advocates have to be lobbyists, too? Since at least four years ago. Here’s why.
Though telecom and cable companies constantly advocate free market rather than government action when communities attempt to build and own broadband networks, incumbents are quick to turn to government to gain market advantage for themselves. Not since 2006 have communities had to battle the level of legislative opposition orchestrated this past year by private companies.
In Maine, Fairpoint was barely out of bankruptcy before garnering state legislature support for a bill to prevent the University of Maine from receiving broadband stimulus money it had won.
Local governments in rural South Carolina and Vermont that also won broadband stimulus grants likewise have been fighting off or delaying statehouse attacks.
In the same week that Kansas City, Kansas, celebrated its selection by Google to receive a gigabit network — a win publicly lauded by state legislators of both parties — conservative legislators attempted to de-fund a public broadband network run by its state university.
A four-year legislative battle between local North Carolina communities and Time Warner ended when its lobbyists and allies forced a crushing defeat of community interests. Then, in what many view as the height of hypocrisy, Time Warner fought government involvement in broadband, but negotiated to receive $5 million from state and local government in return for bringing 225 jobs to the state at $19,600 per job.
Stemming the tide with legislative counterattacks
In 2004, Philadelphia announced it was building a citywide wireless network. Within a few months, hundreds of communities as small as Adel, Georgia (5,300) and as big as Houston and San Francisco, rushed to emulate Philly. Muniwireless.com, an online media outlet that tracks these community wireless networks, listed at one point over 400 actual and proposed projects.
The backlash by incumbents was swift: they pressured 17 states to pass laws imposing various restrictions on communities’ ownership of broadband networks. But in 2006 the high level of negative press, plus the shift in munis’ interest from public broadband to city-use-only networks, convinced incumbents to back down in other states. This legislative ceasefire lasted until 2010 when broadband stimulus winners started collecting checks, and after enough conservative legislators had won elections, shifting control in statehouses to Republicans, as was the case in North Carolina.
After watching a surge of broadband attacks in other states, broadband supporters in Wisconsin decided there was only one way to prevail against their legislature’s attempt to eliminate that state university’s stimulus grant. Counterattack with aggressive, relentless grassroots efforts.
Telecom companies in Wisconsin combined tactics that had been used in several states: to de-fund the state university system that is currently providing broadband services and to deny public institutions the stimulus funds they had won.
The legislature sought to prevent the University’s money from going to WiscNet. This association of public and private organizations operates as a cooperative to provide fiber infrastructure to schools, libraries and other institutions. Members pay a fee to belong and receive broadband services. The University of Wisconsin (UW) is their biggest customer.
According to Maria Alvarez-Stroud, Director of UW’s Office of Broadband Sustainability, legislators claimed that the University was by default competing with Badgernet, a project of private-sector companies that sell institutions infrastructure. The legislation to prohibit membership in WiscNet “misstates the reality of the situation,” says Alvarez-Stroud; “plus many find Badgernet’s offerings inadequate for meeting their needs.”
Over the years, WiscNet facilitated the growth of community area networks (CANs), particularly among the state’s rural areas. “These networks, which are often small projects, represent grassroots efforts by communities to address needs that large private providers won’t meet,” states Alvaraz-Stroud. “There are, however, quite a few small, regional private providers that belong to WiscNet and also offer services through the CANs.”
The second debilitating element of the legislature’s bill was to prevent UW, WiscNet and the community area networks from receiving the stimulus grant they had collectively won to build 600 miles of middle and last-mile infrastructure that would unite their disparate networks. Even though local private sector providers would be directly involved with these open networks (and large telcos were invited to participate), legislators carried incumbents’ water, claiming that the public sector would compete with the private sector.
Lessons from the trenches
Alvarez-Stroud and a core group of stakeholders throughout the Wisconsin counterattacked with a two-pronged effort of their own. They engaged legislators face-to-face at the statehouse, educating, cajoling and when necessary, horse-trading. They also ignited a massive grassroots effort of phone calls, e-mails and letters. The calls became so intense that legislators went to the media to demand they cease.
In the end, communities won a partial victory by killing the anti-muni broadband portions of the bill, but they still have to return to legislators to justify UW’s continued relationship with WiscNet. “I expect we will have other battles to fight in the legislature for years to come,” states Alvarez-Stroud.
Broadband supporters in Wisconsin and elsewhere are passing on lessons to communities to help them in the inevitable political battles that lie ahead. “You need to find one person in every community who sees broadband’s possibilities for constituents and can pull others together with unified messaging,” Alvarez-Stroud observes. “Our message was, with this network we can get what we need, it will cost less and we’ll have more say in how the network is run.”
If the issue starts to take hold, be available to tell your side of the story to the press. Be ready and have a clear message.
Craig Settles, of Oakland, California, is an analyst and business strategist in the broadband industry.