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Pandemic Possible Inflection Point in States’ Move Away from Restrictions on Community Networks

The number of states restricting municipal broadband networks has dropped during the pandemic.

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Photo of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee from June 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

In years past, states have implemented preemptive laws that make it more difficult or impossible for communities to build their own Internet networks.

These state barriers were often enacted at the behest of large telecom monopolies to limit competition, and include everything from outright bans on municipal broadband networks to oppressive restrictions and requirements which create legal uncertainty for communities attempting to offer telecommunications and Internet services, including via partnerships.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, there were 19 states maintaining significant restrictions on municipal networks. Today, the number of states upholding these barriers has been reduced to 17. The pandemic served as a turning point in the fight for local authority, and in the past year, Arkansas and Washington adopted legislation significantly rolling back legislative barriers on publicly owned broadband networks.

In February of 2021, both chambers of the Republican-dominated Arkansas State Legislature voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 74 to State Governor Asa Hutchinson, who signed the bill into law. The legislation grants government entities the authority to provide broadband services and expands the financing options available to municipalities to fund municipal broadband projects.

In May of 2021, Washington State Governor and Democrat Jay Inslee signed two bills expanding municipal authority to provide retail internet services to end-users, House Bill 1336 and Senate Bill 5383. Both bills reduce barriers to municipal networks, but House Bill 1336, which completely removes all previously-held restrictions on public broadband in the state of Washington, is expected to take legal precedence.

The recent progress made by Arkansas and Washington is extremely timely as more federal, state, and local funding is available to improve broadband infrastructure than ever before. Momentum for municipal broadband is mounting, but there is still a long road to travel to overturn the legal barriers which remain in 17 states.

Advancing, stalling and nearly retreating

Every year, bills aiming to expand the authority of local governments and municipal electric cooperatives to construct broadband networks are introduced in state legislatures. And every year, these bills stall, are withdrawn, and die as a result of the immense lobbying power of the private monopolies. In 2021, state legislators in IdahoMontanaMissouriTennesseeNebraska, and North Carolina, all introduced legislation to lessen state-held barriers against municipal broadband. Many of these bills died in committee after action on the legislation was indefinitely postponed.

To give an example, legislation (H.B. 422) introduced early on in Montana’s 2021 Legislative Session – which would have allowed the state’s local governments to own and operate community broadband networks – underwent a dramatic twist of fate when dozens of legislators who previously supported the proposal suddenly turned against it, causing the bill to die in a final House vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Kelly Kortumtold the Daily Montanan that he attributes its failure to 11th-hour lobbying efforts of incumbent telecommunications companies in Montana, which he believes were caught off guard by the vast support the bill initially received.  “I expected it to fail on the House floor. It didn’t, and then the lobbying really began,” Kortum said.

Next door, in Idaho, it has been a cable monopoly and local telephone companies that have pushed hard against municipal open access approaches that would create robust competition. In largely rural states, some local telephone companies are deeply afraid of competing in an actual marketplace.

Many states preserved previously-established barriers throughout 2021, but one state, Ohio, nearly became the first state in a decade to erect new barriers to the establishment and expansion of municipal broadband networks.

In June, the Ohio Senate included an amendment that effectively banned the creation of municipal broadband networks in its two-year, $75-billion budget bill. Thankfully, after local officials, community broadband advocates, and angry residents and businesses from across the state spoke out against it, the anonymously-added amendment was removed from the budget. The governor and lieutenant governor, both Republicans, spoke out against these limits on municipal broadband.

While some state legislators are working tirelessly to reduce barriers to municipal broadband, the largest ISPs are able to use their outsized influence and cash reserves to block legislation that would undermine their control over the broadband marketplace. “In the 116th Congress alone, these corporations spent an astounding $234 million on lobbying and federal elections,” reports Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America, in a recent study, Broadband Gatekeepers: How ISP Lobbying and Political Influence Shapes the Digital Divide.

A partisan issue on the federal level

The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan centered on bolstering nonprofit, municipal, and cooperative models to develop high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide. Unfortunately, in the sausage-making, the focus on community broadband networks was dropped and outspoken federal support for municipal networks largely quieted as the monopoly lobbyists descended on Congress and the White House.

This is representative of a disconnect that exists between congressional Republicans and Republican officials on the local and state level. While expanding local internet choice is an overwhelmingly bipartisan issue at the local level, it is a highly partisan issue in Congress.

For example, in the same month that the Republican-dominated Arkansas State Legislature removed restrictions on municipal broadband, Congressional Republicans introduced a bill package attempting to ban communities from constructing their own networks and engaging in public-private partnerships nationwide.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have pushed to preempt states from enacting or enforcing laws that restrict municipalities from building and operating broadband networks. In March, congressional Democrats introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would prohibit banning or limiting the ability of any state, regional, or local governments to build broadband networks and provide Internet services. However, the Democrats were ultimately not united in pushing that language into the infrastructure bill.

A web of legal barriers

Common approaches to preempting municipal broadband networks range from straightforward bans to confusing financial restrictions and complicated legal requirements. While some states have established one main barrier to community broadband, many more have adopted a web of regulations that kill any possibility of municipal connectivity, if only because of the legal uncertainty created by complex and vague laws.

Out of the 17 states with restrictions on municipal networks, a few explicitly ban local governments from providing communications services to their citizens. In Nevada, only municipalities with less than 25,000 people and counties with less than 55,000 people can offer telecommunications services. Tennessee bars municipalities without electric utilities from providing Internet access in most situations. Local governments in Missouri and Texas are limited to offering Internet access and no other telecommunications services. Montana and Pennsylvania state laws permit municipal networks, but only in unserved communities, with vague definitions of what that means.

In states that don’t expressly forbid municipal networks, state legislatures can still establish legal roadblocks that deter investment in community broadband networks. One of the strongest examples of this is North Carolina, where an array of burdensome restrictions and requirements “collectively have the practical effect of impairing public communications initiatives,” according to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice [pdf].

Other states, including Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina, require that municipal networks impute private sector costs, pay additional taxes, set excessively high prices, and/or refrain from subsidizing affordable service, in the name of protecting private “competition.” In other states, legislators have established stringent procedural requirements, including a prescribed bidding process in Michigan and community referenda in Alabama and Minnesota.

To learn more

To learn more about the legislative bans states maintain, check out this resource [pdf], maintained by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), which summarizes state barriers to public broadband as of July 2021.

CLIC’s list is focused on a more legalistic look at state barriers and still includes Washington and Arkansas, while they see how the law settles. The Institute for Local Self Reliance focuses on the 17 states where state limits significantly restrain municipal broadband networks and partnerships, while agreeing with CLIC that additional states have barriers that can also discourage investment.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on September 15, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Infrastructure

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021: Pathbreaking Mini-Conference Monday at 1 p.m. ET

Even if you are not at the Broadband Communities Summit, you can still participate in Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021.

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HOUSTON, September 26, 2021 – On Monday, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in the Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference at the Broadband Communities Summit.

I’m here in Houston for the start of the conference. I’m keen to kick off our five-hour program beginning at 1 p.m. ET / 12 Noon CT.

This event is taking place LIVE ONLINE and IN PERSON. 

But whether you plan to attend the Summit in-person or not, we want to make sure you know what you need to about Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021. This unique and innovative event, now in its second year at the Summit, joins the broadband infrastructure and financial services communities to focus on digital infrastructure and asset investment profiles, including fiber, small cells, towers and data center assets required to support a 21st Century information economy.

REGISTER NOW

We’re also looking to collect questions from our LIVE ONLINE and IN PERSON audiences that we can address throughout the day. You can ask your questions — ahead of time, and during the event — by posting them on Sli.do for Topic 1.

As the five-hour event rolls out, we’ll take questions here on Topic 2, Topic 3 and Topic 4 using the same technology. See the full and updated program at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

The Broadband Communities Summit is ​the ​leading ​conference ​on ​broadband ​technologies ​for ​communities. It will take place in Houston, Texas, from September 27 – September 30, 2021.

The Summit ​attracts ​broadband ​system ​operators, ​network ​builders ​and ​deployers ​of ​all ​kinds. ​Many ​of ​the ​country’s ​major ​property ​owners ​and ​real ​estate ​developers ​attend ​the ​Summit ​each ​year, ​along ​with ​independent ​telcos ​and ​cable ​companies, ​municipal ​and ​state ​officials, ​community ​leaders ​and ​economic ​development ​professionals. ​

Participation in the LIVE ONLINE portion is available for only $149.00. This purchase includes unlimited online replays of DII2021 – no matter what time you join the program.

Panelists at the event include representatives from  Althea Networks, Broadband.Money,Google Fiber, Keybanc Capital Markets, Lit Communities, Positron Access, Render Networks, SiFi NetworksTing Internet, UTOPIA Fiber, Broadband Now, the City of Brownsville, NoaNet, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the State of Illinois, California Emerging Technology Fund, the Wireless Industry Association, and more!

To order:

REGISTER NOW

Pay $149.00.

That’s it! You’ll receive an email with instructions on how to get the Zoom link to participate in Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 Live Online.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 Sponsors:

Platinum Sponsors

Lit partners with municipal, county and other governmental entities, as well as a variety of private partners to deploy last-mile fiber optic network infrastructure. Residents and businesses connected to our networks will receive service from a local internet service provider that delivers a local brand and promise of great service and customer support.

 

Broadband.money makes finding and winning broadband grants easy. Sign up at today at broadband.money to line up for your share of $42 billion worth of broadband grant funding with a single application that unlocks grants in multiple states. Find underserved and unserved areas in your territory. Need match funding? No problem. Get on the fast track to funded with many sources of private money to choose from. Discover, apply, get match funding, and win grants. It’s really that simple. www.broadband.money

Gold Sponsors

BroadbandNow is a data aggregation company helping millions of consumers find and compare local internet options. BroadbandNow’s database of providers, the largest in the U.S., delivers the highest-value guides consisting of comprehensive plans, prices and ratings for thousands of internet service providers.

 

Render Networks provides an entirely new approach to fiber deployment. Utilizing innovative geographic information systems (GIS), mobile and automation technology, Render’s platform and data management enable network operators, engineers and builders to deliver quality networks without the need for manual, paper-based construction packs. Render uses real-time geospatial data to provide increased control and visibility, resulting in significant resource productivity across the delivery lifecycle.

Silver Sponsors

SiFi funds, builds and owns FiberCity™ networks for use by Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties as well as connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications.

 

Created by a group of Utah cities, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) is a community-owned fiber optic network that uses the Open Access model to promote competition by giving customers the freedom to choose which telecommunication services they want.

 

Positron Access specializes in carrier-grade telecommunications products that increase bandwidth delivered and the distance covered within both core access networks and residential buildings using existing wiring infrastructure. These include line powered digital subscriber line amplifiers/extenders that double the customer serving areas and increase the bandwidth, G.hn Gigabit Access Mulitplexors (GAM) that provide managed non-blocking symmetrical gigabit bandwidth to subscribers in multiple-dwelling units/multi-tenant units over copper pairs or coaxial cables; and bonded copper solutions for mobile backhaul, core transport, access and edge aggregation.

 

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has been on a mission over the last decade to forge partnerships and foster public policy to close the Digital Divide. This work has been strategically-focused, results-oriented, and people-centered. CETF is a leading proponent of the Digital Equity Bill of Rights

 

See the complete agenda for Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

See the complete agenda for Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

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Rural

Christopher Ali’s New Book Dissects Failures of Rural Broadband Policy and Leadership

“Farm Fresh Broadband” explains the world of broadband policy and provides solutions to bridge the digital divide.

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WASHINGTON, September 24, 2021—In his most recent book, University of Virginia Professor Christopher Ali argues that the ongoing battle for improved connectivity is not only far from over, but also critically flawed.

“Farm Fresh Broadband” proposes a new approach to national rural broadband policy to narrow the rural-urban digital divide. In Ali’s view, the lack of coordinated, federal leadership and a failure to recognize the roles that local communities and municipalities need to play in the deployment of broadband has contributed to a lack of competition between carriers, and ultimately, higher costs to consumers.

Just two days after it was released, Ali sat down for a video interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark to discuss his story – and Ali’s recommendations that resulted from his journey.

Ali raises the question about How the $6 billion in federal funds allocated to broadband is spent annually? Based on his findings, he makes policy recommendations to democratize rural broadband policy architecture and re-model it after the historic efforts to bring telephony services and electricity to Americans across the country.

In particular, Ali discusses how, in one chapter of his book, he raises the provocative question about whether “Good Is the Enemy of Great: The Four Failures of Rural Broadband Policy.” In his telling, less money, lower speed, and poor-quality broadband mapping have all contributed to an approach that, in seeking “good enough,” federal policy has failed Rural America.

Ali, an associate professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is also the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World” (Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2017)

“Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity” available at the MIT Press.

See Professor Ali’s recent Expert Opinion for Broadband Breakfast, “Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

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Infrastructure

Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021: The Future of Shared Infrastructure

Topic 4 explores the past and future of the shared infrastructure model with more smart city deployments.

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Panelists for Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

September 23, 2021 – In four days, Broadband Breakfast will kick off Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 at the Broadband Communities Summit on Monday, September 27, 2021.

This pathbreaking event brings the broadband infrastructure and financial services communities together to focus on the digital infrastructure and investment asset profile, including fiber, small cells, towers and data center assets required to support a 21st Century information economy.

This fourth session at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 – Topic 4 — is about the future of shared infrastructure. What will best practices look like for ownership models? How will the landscape shift as we continue to deploy 5G technologies across the country?

In particular, this session will consider how cellular towers were once proprietary, before carriers partnered with infrastructure owners. Will future wired and wireless deployments, including smart city projects, have any bearing upon the shared infrastructure model?

The conference will kick off at 1 p.m. ET / 12 Noon CT, and this fourth panel is scheduled to begin at 5:15 p.m. ET / 4:15 p.m. CT. Unlike other aspects of the Broadband Communities Summit, Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will be available both IN PERSON and LIVE ONLINE.

The session will moderated by Mari Silbey, Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, and includes, as panelists, Jonathan Adelstein, President & CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association; C. Earl Peek, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC; and Deborah Simpier, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 to register, and for the most up-to-date information about the mini-conference.

Panelists for Topic 4:

  • Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO, Wireless Industry Association
  • C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC
  • Deborah Simpler, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks
  • Mari Silbey (moderator),  Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach, US Ignite

Jonathan Adelstein has headed the Wireless Industry Association since 2012, representing the businesses that build, develop, own, and operate the nation’s wireless infrastructure. He is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. He previously served 15 years on the U.S. Senate staff, culminating as a senior legislative advisor to Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC, is a graduate from Wilberforce University in Ohio with a B.S, in Accounting, Summa Cum Laude and has an extensive background in public accounting, banking, commercial lending, and venture capital formation.  As an entrepreneur he ran his own business for eight years.  He founded and was greenlighted to be a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC). As Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Treasury he was a key voting member for deploying capital to ethnic minorities, minority depository institutions, community banks, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and other U.S. entities deploying nearly $6B in all states, cities, and more than 400 community banks. Mr. Peek, was an Assistant Vice-President /Director of the Bank Commercial Business Development with Industrial Bank and later he was Vice President in Commercial Banking with BB&T- both   in Washington, D.C.

Deborah Simpier is a small business veteran and has been active in the Pacific Northwest mesh networking and net neutrality scene for several years. Before she became co-founder and CEO, she was Althea’s first user.

Mari Silbey (moderator) is Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, a $100 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of more than 30 wireless companies and associations. Mari has 20 years of experience in communications and technology. She has worked previously as a writer, analyst and consultant in the private sector, and as a journalist covering broadband and wireless infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will take place at the Broadband Communities Summit, and online, on Monday, September 27, 2021. 

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for the LIVE ONLINE version of Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the Member’s Rate of $149. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

The Broadband Communities Summit is ​the ​leading ​conference ​on ​broadband ​technologies ​for ​communities. It will take place in Houston, Texas, from September 27 – September 30, 2021.

The Summit ​attracts ​broadband ​system ​operators, ​network ​builders ​and ​deployers ​of ​all ​kinds. ​Many ​of ​the ​country’s ​major ​property ​owners ​and ​real ​estate ​developers ​attend ​the ​Summit ​each ​year, ​along ​with ​independent ​telcos ​and ​cable ​companies, ​municipal ​and ​state ​officials, ​community ​leaders ​and ​economic ​development ​professionals. ​

For more information on the Summit, visit Broadband Communities, as well as 2021 Travel & Hotel Information.

Broadband Breakfast Club Members receive discount pricing on both the Broadband Communities Summit and Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021.

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for BOTH the Broadband Communities Summit and the IN-PERSON Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the  Member’s Rate of $349. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

 

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 Sponsors:

Platinum Sponsors

Lit partners with municipal, county and other governmental entities, as well as a variety of private partners to deploy last-mile fiber optic network infrastructure. Residents and businesses connected to our networks will receive service from a local internet service provider that delivers a local brand and promise of great service and customer support.

 

Broadband.money makes finding and winning broadband grants easy. Sign up at today at broadband.money to line up for your share of $42 billion worth of broadband grant funding with a single application that unlocks grants in multiple states. Find underserved and unserved areas in your territory. Need match funding? No problem. Get on the fast track to funded with many sources of private money to choose from. Discover, apply, get match funding, and win grants. It’s really that simple. www.broadband.money

Gold Sponsors

BroadbandNow is a data aggregation company helping millions of consumers find and compare local internet options. BroadbandNow’s database of providers, the largest in the U.S., delivers the highest-value guides consisting of comprehensive plans, prices and ratings for thousands of internet service providers.

 

Render Networks provides an entirely new approach to fiber deployment. Utilizing innovative geographic information systems (GIS), mobile and automation technology, Render’s platform and data management enable network operators, engineers and builders to deliver quality networks without the need for manual, paper-based construction packs. Render uses real-time geospatial data to provide increased control and visibility, resulting in significant resource productivity across the delivery lifecycle.

Silver Sponsors

SiFi funds, builds and owns FiberCity™ networks for use by Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties as well as connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications.

 

Created by a group of Utah cities, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) is a community-owned fiber optic network that uses the Open Access model to promote competition by giving customers the freedom to choose which telecommunication services they want.

 

Positron Access specializes in carrier-grade telecommunications products that increase bandwidth delivered and the distance covered within both core access networks and residential buildings using existing wiring infrastructure. These include line powered digital subscriber line amplifiers/extenders that double the customer serving areas and increase the bandwidth, G.hn Gigabit Access Mulitplexors (GAM) that provide managed non-blocking symmetrical gigabit bandwidth to subscribers in multiple-dwelling units/multi-tenant units over copper pairs or coaxial cables; and bonded copper solutions for mobile backhaul, core transport, access and edge aggregation.

 

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has been on a mission over the last decade to forge partnerships and foster public policy to close the Digital Divide. This work has been strategically-focused, results-oriented, and people-centered. CETF is a leading proponent of the Digital Equity Bill of Rights

 

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

To inquire about Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021, contact drew@breakfast.media.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020 took place online on August 10, 2020, from 1 p.m. ET to 5:30 p.m. ET. It was broadcast at the Broadband Communities Virtual Summit on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

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