If you are totally fed up with your internet service provider, frustrated with high prices and lousy customer service and have lost all hope of becoming the next gigabit city, the time for change is today. The unveiling of the Obama Broadband Doctrine in Cedar Falls, Iowa last week caps a series of events that make this a perfect time of action for consumers and businesses that are as mad as hell and not gonna take this anymore.
Community Broadband advocates received a late Christmas gift when President Obama gave them his full-throated support, stating that
a community has right to make its own choice and to provide its own broadband if it wants to. If there are state laws in place that prohibit or restrict these community-based efforts, all of us, including the FCC, should do everything we can to push back on those old laws. More competition mean better products and cheaper prices.
The President listed several initiatives to advance broadband, including BroadbandUSA. But the motherlode of bounty to broadband supporters is the extensive media coverage of state barriers to public networks and the need to remove them. Coverage should crescendo with President Obama tackling broadband in his State of the Union address, giving advocates everywhere a powerful tool to harness grassroots support to launch networks.
Building on public broadband success
The President handed broadband supporters a sledgehammer to hit back at critics who claim all muni-related networks are failures. Cedar Falls’ public utility has offered broadband successfully for 20 years. Becoming Iowa’s first gigabit city last year is expanding their success. “Of the roughly 650 businesses that use our Internet service, 38 percent now have 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps service,” said Cedar Falls Utilities marketing manager Betty Zeman. “Usage of the higher tiers is growing monthly.” Another 15 public-owned networks operate successfully in Iowa. Over 140 successful public-owned citywide networks operate across the U.S., 40 of which offer gigabit service.
The President’s initiatives reinforce and expand supporters’ efforts evangelizing broadband’s economic value. Bob Seymour, Planner III/Economic Development for the City of Cedar Falls, said “our companies are growing because of the network and they don’t have to move to find great service. Broadband wrapped together with other advantages gives us the edge.”
Traditional financing sources, taking a cue from the President and other cities’ successes, could create a surge of gigabit communities, the way New York state is doing (note the 100 Mbps speed threshold grant recipients must meet). Waverly, Iowa’s public utility has received a loan commitment from a local bank to fund its network, and is waiting for the utility’s board to vote on the deal. The bank approved the loan based on Waverly Power & Light’s extensive community research data, strong business plan and many years of running a successful business operation. “The bank has deep ties to the community and cares about its economic health, so they understand the need for this network, plus they have faith in our abilities based on their relationship with us,” said WPL general manager Darrel Wenzel.
Global investment bank Macquarie Capital agreed over the holidays to invest up to $350 million in a regional public network for eastern Kentucky. The state is investing $20 million. This will be the second major U.S. deal for Macquarie when it finishes ironing the wrinkles in the deal it’s structuring with UTOPIA, a regional public broadband project in Utah.
According to Curtis Dean, broadband services coordinator for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, “Bond markets are improving, but there’s still a hesitation among city officials to pursue this option. In another year we should see a noticeable increase in bond measures to fund broadband, and subsequently, more projects.”
Getting ready for the fight
The President’s support will be felt in the fight to navigate, mitigate or eliminate the impacts of 21 states’ restrictive laws, which are dissected in a new report. His bully pulpit is powerful, but policies matter too. The FCC’s intent to define broadband as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload adds fuel to communities’ fight because some restrictions are based on the current 4/1 Mbps definition of broadband. Raising the speeds opens vulnerabilities in the laws.
John Sofley, the acting city manager of Salisbury, North Carolina, one of only four cities exempt from that state’s harsh anti-muni network law, said, “We fortunately have the opportunity to serve some people outside the city limits and in other municipalities within our county with certain limitations. However, we will be exploring options during the next year. I am hopeful that we will gain permission to serve those we previously had to turn away.” Some state legislators are having a change of heart and trying to roll back some provisions of these laws. Ultimately, the bipartisan grassroots must heed the call. In November, eight Colorado communities, some with distinctly left- or right-leaning constituencies, all passed referenda with over 75 percent of the votes to take back broadband authority.
Supporters must remain vigilant against new anti-public network laws. Missouri State Senator Kurt Schaeffer (R-Columbia) introduced a bill adding new restrictions to the existing law, withdrew it after initial criticism, but is expected to reintroduce the bill soon. Advocates must rally constituents throughout the state, ride the momentum that media publicity and strong grassroots support have given this issue and push back relentlessly to defeat this bill.
The President has gone all in for public broadband. Awareness and resentment of state barriers is at an all-time high. Various events are coming together to boost the broadband wave. Is the public ready to jump on board and take action? Are they mad as hell and not gonna take this anymore?
Craig Settles helps communities develop broadband strategies. He recently wrote “How to Navigate, Mitigate or Eliminate the Impacts of State Restrictions on Public Broadband,” and hosts radio talk show Gigabit Nation. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.