If you’re a state or local public sector official, broadband has been on your mind lately — and if it hasn’t been, it needs to be, according to a panel of stakeholders at the National League of Cities (NLC) Congressional City Conference this week.
Held in Washington, D.C., the conference provided a platform for both municipal elected officials and advocates to address the question of local broadband deployment throughout the country. Questions were shared about the direction that states are heading as a result of the influence that large broadband providers have on state legislatures — concerns founded in recent Federal Communications Commission actions, and supported in the written NLC policy goals.
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that NLC calls on Congress to remove state-imposed barriers to broadband investment, such as preemption of municipal broadband networks,” the organization states as an official position. Broadband preemption is when states make laws that override the ability of cities or community coalitions form their own networks or otherwise make independent choices related to internet access.
Speaking on a panel moderated by Gary Resnick of Wilton Manors, Florida, the harshest speculation came from Joanne Hovis, CEO of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. Hovis leads an organization that supports local authority in making broadband choices across the country, so she spoke in broad terms, characterizing the broadband situation many rural and metropolitan communities face in a panel titled “The rising tide of preemption.”
Hovis told the audience that virtually every community in the U.S. has been or will be forced to consider their position on broadband for the good of their citizens. Nineteen states have laws that discourage municipalities from making their own decisions in choosing their broadband provider — a system detrimental to the overall health of the national broadband infrastructure, she said.
“When there are efforts at the state level to preempt local authority of broadband,” Hovis told the audience, “as many of you have experienced in your states, they are framed in the context of ‘this is about enabling private opportunity and private competition and private investment, and if the public gets involved somehow, public involvement will be destructive to that private investment.’”
“In my experience actually, the opposite is true,” she said. “Private investment only happens when there is some reason for it on the competitive front. If there is no competitive frame emerging, if there is no competitive dynamic, why would a private sector monopolist or duopolist invest?”
The other two panelists, Fort Collins, Colorado Mayor Wade Troxell and Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) Executive Director Larry Hanson, shared similar sentiments, drawing from their experiences in the public sector.
Troxell recounted his experience leading Fort Collins into establishing its own municipal broadband network. After a hearing with representatives from Comcast and Centurylink had disillusioned local officials in Fort Collins, Troxell said, the city of more than 150,000 decided to brace Colorado’s restrictive local broadband authority laws to pursue city-owned broadband across the 56,000 premises of Fort Collins. Despite more than $900,000 in adversarial spending from the incumbent providers, Troxell said, 57 percent of citizens voted in favor of establishing broadband as a fifth public utility in addition to water, wastewater, stormwater, and electricity.
Troxell told the audience that a public-private partnership was what the city was really after, but in response to a request for proposals, Fort Collins officials saw that they were taking on an unnecessary amount of risk for the reward.
Hanson, who previously served as city manager of Valdosta, Georgia, prior to running the GMA, is currently fighting against bills in the Georgia state legislature that would preempt local authority from making decisions over right-of-way broadband infrastructure and utility poles.
“State franchise agreements for the cable industry became a model, and of course I understand why industry wanted that — it has to be difficult to invest in every individual community,” Hanson said. “It also took away the right we had as local governments to negotiate terms that are in the best interests of our own communities and our own users.”