“I am absolutely Republican, and absolutely pro-business,” stated State Senator Janice Bowling of Tennessee’s 16th District. “Yet if we don’t get high-speed internet into small towns and rural communities, there will be no businesses in those areas.”
Getting high-speed internet access into more communities is influenced often by the politics of broadband. Could those politics be shifting for public networks?
Conservative legislatures were primarily responsible for state laws restricting public-owned broadband networks. Senator Bowling’s recent comments on Gigabit Nation, though, indicate attitudes among conservative legislators representing rural and small communities may be evolving to create a greater bipartisan drive for change. “We don’t argue with incumbents’ profit motives, we just can’t continue to be held hostage to their profit margins.”
Early in the 2014 session of the Tennessee legislature, Senator Bowling was a primary voice among a mostly Republican group of legislators who worked hard to overturn this state’s severe restrictions on public broadband networks. The effort fell just short of success. In 2015, the senator will fight the battle again, but this time with a huge backdrop of political support from many sides of the political spectrum.
Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee petitioned the FCC with bipartisan local support to have the FCC overturn these respective states’ restriction on public broadband. In Colorado, some of the most conservative and one of the most liberal communities voted in the last election to nullify their state’s restriction and get their rights back to pursue public broadband. Conservative legislators are increasingly under pressure from residents and local businesses demanding public solutions when the private sector fails to meet communities’ needs.
FCC redefines broadband speed, adds heat to public network opponents
Last week the FCC voted to increase the speeds that define broadband up to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This is a big deal in the political battles that determine if communities can build their own networks because the new speeds give communities a hammer to go after these laws.
State legislators have used the FCC definition of broadband speeds to define or enforce their anti-public broadband laws. In South Carolina, for example, Orangeburg County Administrator Bill Clark stated:
The law uses definitions that make it appear public-owned networks can only be built for unserved areas, but then define ‘served’ as areas with 768K [from the FCC’s original definition of broadband] symmetrical speeds that reach 25 percent of an area. By this definition, all of South Carolina is covered.
In North Carolina, cities have to prove 50 percent of constituents aren’t getting broadband already, so someone has to go home by home to show that each is getting less than 1.5 megs down and the FCC’s former minimum speed of 256K up.
Even in states without these laws, the FCC’s new definition gives cities and towns political leverage because it’s cities, rather than the private sector, that are showing the greatest potential to meet or exceed FCC guidelines. There are 40 publicly owned citywide gigabit networks in the U.S. Except for Google, the private sector has no gig cities. Over 140 communities have citywide public high-speed networks while carriers have lobbied state legislatures nationwide to pass bills to free them of obligations to provide any service in a lot of areas. Many city officials will feel great pressure to meet the new guidelines if private providers won’t step up, and could be compelled to play the public broadband card as success stories increase.
The FCC decision is increasing the general awareness of the relationship between increased speeds and economic development, particularly among state legislators. Senator Bowling remarked, “I applaud the FCC for increasing the speed for broadband, but my legislation last year asked for 100 Mbps symmetrical so you won’t constrict yourself. When you buy a turkey, you have to get some bones in there, so you may as well get as much meat as you can on those bones. You want the high capacity on your network.” This is what impacts the economy.
Communities in Tennessee and elsewhere have viewed high-speed networks as essential to keeping their towns from struggling or dying out, even years before the FCC increased the speed. Senator Bowling’s hometown of Tullahoma built a public-owned fiber network in 2006. She believes the town has grown twice as fast as surrounding towns with slower Internet speeds. In a 2012 national survey of International Economic Development Council members, between 21 and 28 percent felt at least 25–50 Mbps symmetrical is needed to increase local companies’ growth, home businesses and other economic outcomes.
Fanning the political flames even more is the Community Broadband Act introduced into the U.S. Senate by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Besides preventing state legislatures from interfering with cities’ decisions whether or not to pursue public broadband, the bill creates a truly level playing field. Public entities can’t discriminate for private or public sector organizations in permitting, rights of way access, or passing special rules. Public entities won’t be exempt from FCC rules and regulations, including taxation. The private sector invited to play by way of the bill’s “Put your money where your mouth is” clause. (Here’s the text of the bill.)
Six months ago, there was a surging interest in public networks as mostly bipartisan local efforts regularly added cities to the list of those actively pursuing these networks. But the anchor holding back the national drive for more broadband in more places was the collection of states with anti-public network laws and the additional states such as Kansas and Georgia living under the threat of new laws. After just a month in 2015, however, actions by the FCC, the U.S. Senate and local economic forces are revving up public pressure on state legislators. The FCC’s February 26 meeting, where it is expected to rule on the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions, could really influence some legislative changes. Residential and local businesses stand to win big if this happens.
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.