With the end of the legislative session looming, Missouri lawmakers are under the gun to make a final decision on controversial legislation aimed at changing how communities construct their own broadband networks.
Legislators from both chambers of the state’s General Assembly are currently reviewing Sen. Eric Schmitt’s S.B. 765 in a conference committee, largely thanks to an amendment by Rep. Lyndall Fraker. As introduced, the bill focused on traffic citations, but Fraker’s changes would require local governments hoping to set up and run certain kinds of broadband services to conduct a feasibility study of the network and then put the project up for a vote.
Fraker’s amendment would grandfather in existing municipal networks, but the legislation has still drawn fierce opposition from community broadband advocates, who claim that it places unnecessary burdens on municipalities hoping to expand internet access through these public networks.
But Fraker told StateScoop that the bill aims to protect taxpayers should their community set up a network that ends up failing.
“We have cities that are spending taxpayer dollars, in many cases without a vote of the people, creating another entity that might compete with a private business,” Fraker said. “What we’re trying to do is just give the people a voice.”
Fraker noted that the legislation wouldn’t apply to communities where private providers serve less than half of all residents, and only regulates broadband services that would cost a government at least $6 million over a five-year period. Additionally, he pointed to the bill’s provision barring communities from using fees collected from other government services to fund broadband projects as crucial to protecting taxpayers.
“We just want to make sure that water rates, sewer rates, electric rates aren’t being elevated to pay for broadband, because not all citizens might need that broadband service,” Fraker said.
But municipal broadband advocates blast that line of thinking, given the state of broadband availability in the state. A 2015 Federal Communications Commission study found that 29 percent of Missouri residents don’t have access to broadband service, a rate well above the national average of 17 percent.
“In the year of 2016, when a lot of people in Missouri need internet access, it’s fascinating to me that the state is trying to discourage more investment in broadband,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the community broadband initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “That, in itself, is just mind boggling.”
Mitchell is especially concerned that bill’s strictures would force municipalities to conduct expansive studies of networks without knowing if voters will approve them.
“To have that referendum, a local government would probably have to spend tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mitchell said. “It will discourage communities from even starting to look at this as a solution.”
Crucially, Mitchell sees the influence of the telecom industry in Fraker’s efforts.
He points to the fact that Fraker introduced a bill identical to this amendment in January, which stalled in committee, as evidence that the Republican is trying to pass these provisions without broad support from the Legislature. Mitchell suggested that campaign contributions from the industry pushed him to do so — according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association have contributed a combined $9,875 to Fraker’s campaign committee since he was first elected in 2010.
“Unfortunately at the state level, there are a number of elected representatives who only ever hear from one side of the issue, so I suspect that he’s probably not nefarious,” Mitchell said.
Fraker vehemently denies that money influenced his support of the legislation, noting that the process of attaching the language to an unrelated bill is a common one late in the session and pointing out that he’s taken donations from groups supporting municipal networks as well (indeed, the institute’s database shows the Missouri Association of Municipal Utilities has given Fraker $2,500 over the same period).
“I can tell you that I’m not going to sponsor a bill that I don’t believe in, regardless of what the campaign contribution is,” Fraker said. “People are going to draw their own conclusions.”
Ric Telthorst, president of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, doesn’t deny that private sector providers support Fraker’s efforts, but he suggests that they have good reason.
“If a municipality wants to get into the business of providing broadband, generally they want to provide it to all the businesses in a certain part of town or they want to give it to an industrial park,” Telthorst said. “Those types of businesses are the prime market for a private sector provider.”
Fraker said he’s unsure whether the conference committee will advance the bill to a full floor vote, and with the session ending on Friday, the legislation is very much in limbo.
That’s good news for advocates like Mitchell, who hopes lawmakers examine the issues around the bill and opt to leave the law as it is.
“There are lot of people in Missouri who recognize that this is not a good idea and he’s just trying to sneak it through, and we’re hoping it will fail,” Mitchell said.
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