Encouraged by Google and inspired by Kansas City and Chattanooga, there’s an almost daily parade of communities announcing plans to explore or move forward with building their own broadband networks. Unfortunately, laws in 20 states that restrict public networks to varying degrees hinder this surge. Several other states might be battlegrounds in 2015 for new restrictions.
Can communities challenge giant incumbents’ political power as broadband’s role in local economic development gains steam? This year, Kansas and Utah community broadband supporters beat back incumbents’ attempts at new restrictive laws in these states. Eight bills advanced in the Tennessee legislature to roll back their restrictions on public networks. Even though the bills stalled out, their authors vow to return next session with similar legislation. Eight Colorado communities passed ballot measures in November to reclaim their authority to pursue broadband networks, prompting Comcast to double broadband speeds for all customers in the state without increasing the price.
Broadband advocates, observing the needs and political pressures that are driving new community network announcements, feel the time is right to form public-private partnerships to mitigate, navigate or eliminate some of these restrictions. They plan to focus heavily on mobilizing grassroots support and forming private-sector partnerships to achieve these goals.
Keep the FCC engaged
Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, are asking the agency to rescind the states’ respective anti-municipal network laws. Large incumbents likely will tie up in court any ruling favorable to the states, but advocates believe the FCC’s involvement gives the issue a lot of publicity it otherwise wouldn’t get. This in turn energizes communities to fight for modifying or rescinding the laws.
It also will help if the FCC follows through on raising the speed that defines broadband to a minimum of 10 Mbps. Several of the laws tie the definition of broadband to the FCC’s definition. Increasing the minimum could give communities in several states leverage to fight incumbents’ court challenges.
Lobby better than the lobbyists
Communities need to understand the lobbying game — influence through education, cash distribution, delivering souls to the polls and alliance-building. Communities can’t compete with industry lobbyists in cash and perks. But if 11 Colorado communities over two elections each deliver over 65 percent of the vote to pass broadband referenda, this commands respect among elected officials.
Legislators are often short on time and knowledge of technology. Broadband stakeholders must master the 30-second elevator pitch on why public networks are great, and learn the art of telling compelling stories that are jargon-free lessons on key broadband points.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative demonstrates effective alliance building in New Mexico, where a statute at one time had forbidden co-ops from providing broadband services. Luis Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson, built local political support that was rolled up into state political support. “We started with face time and education with elected local officials and anyone who would benefit by having better broadband,” he said. The co-op also got involved with economic development projects in the three counties it services, and developed a track record of success stories.
With the support built among constituents and elected officials, the nonprofit co-op generated 1,000 letters of support for its broadband plans, which it leveraged with state legislators to get the restrictive law removed. Kit Carson created allies by partnering with lawmakers to help them implement economic development initiatives. “Cities always go to the legislature asking for something,” says Reyes. “But we developed relationships so legislators could count on us to deliver support from our 29,000 customers.”
Call out incumbents for forcing citizens to cellular
Large incumbents are conducting a state-by-state stealth campaign to remove their Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) obligations. COLR laws were passed years ago in many states to ensure that rural communities got telephone services. Deals struck with large telecom and cable companies said, in effect, “We’ll give you favorable treatment, if not near-monopoly advantages, if you provide service to customers even in sparsely populated areas.”
Over the past three years, carriers have quietly lobbied state legislatures to pass bills to free them of these obligations, including in New Jersey, Michigan (passed in 2014), California and Kentucky (killed in 2014). A lot of rural constituents may not learn about this activity in their states until after COLR requirements are lifted and carriers try to move customers to cellular service. Communities in states with anti-muni net laws will be doubly screwed if they cannot replace the COLRs with local public networks.
Communities need to find out ASAP if incumbents are pushing to escape COLR responsibilities, and be ready to take appropriate action, including tying COLR escape legislation to a clear unrestricted pathway to public network options.
Take it to the streets
In states such as Iowa, Colorado and Pennsylvania that require referenda or have established right of first refusal procedures, advocates should execute a thorough needs assessment and use the results to develop a winning referendum strategy or a strategy for approaching incumbents.
Yuma County and the City of Yuma in Colorado began assessments a year before their referendum votes. The education and consensus building generated so much voter support that little money or effort was needed to win. More importantly, winning the elections built strong local support to remove the state law entirely. (Six of the Colorado communities that passed their referenda explain in this interview how they won.)
Here’s an explanation of the categories of state laws restricting public-owned networks. “Know thyself,” advised Jim Baller, president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC). “You have to look at the particular law of the particular state, see what it requires, what it prohibits and what options it leaves available.” CLIC CEO Joanne Hovis added, “It’s important that you find your allies. There are chambers of commerce, supportive providers, small businesses associations, your largest employers and municipal or county leagues. We all need to work together to find the best ways to get the broadband that communities need.”
Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter @cjsettles or via his blog.