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“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

How State Politics Screwed Up a Solid Broadband Plan for Western Massachusetts

While rural western Massachusetts is stuck in a rural broadband swamp of Verizon’s making, politics in the state capital and governor’s office are risking Yankee ingenuity for another “free market” broadband solution that won’t solve the problem.

The dedicated locals that created WiredWest, the grassroots-envisioned regional broadband solution for more than two dozen towns suffering with inadequate or non-existent broadband service, have toiled for nearly a decade to accomplish what Verizon (or a cable operator) has never managed to do – provide consistently available internet access. WiredWest spent years carefully listening and learning the needs and challenges of each of their member towns. Communities affected by broadband deficiencies in this part of Massachusetts range from the most prosperous areas of the Berkshires to those financially struggling with a range of economic challenges.

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband.

WiredWest’s original plan would have brought fiber broadband to practically everyone in the region in just a few years, with more prosperous and populous towns helping subsidize network construction costs for their more budget-challenged rural neighbors. The goal was to avoid the patchwork of broadband have’s and have not’s that many private providers have created across rural America.

Establishing a regional network instead of trying to launch dozens of smaller community-owned providers would help streamline costs, avoid duplicating services, and deliver continuity of service. The concept made plenty of sense to two dozen town leaders and the participating communities, most voting to support the regional approach. But it apparently didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to a bureaucratic state agency called the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that suddenly questioned the project’s operating plan and has avoided releasing tens of millions of dollars stashed in its bank account designated for rural broadband network construction.

MBI’s detractors call the agency a “concern troll” and some question whether MBI’s objections are the result of the usual friction between out-of-touch state bureaucrats and the rural communities they are supposed to help, or something more insidious. Others are content stating MBI’s position simply does not make any sense.

MBI spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer funds on lawyers and a Bangalore, India-based consultancy to produce and defend a dubious hit piece “analysis” about WiredWest rife with misconceptions and factual errors. The MBI-sponsored report concluded WiredWest would simply never work. What works better for MBI is handing out $4 million in taxpayer dollars to Comcast, with tens of millions more to be spent on funding private rural broadband projects in the future.

Crawford

Earlier this month, broadcast activist Susan Crawford shared her blistering conclusions about the usefulness of MBI:

For an agency that has produced virtually nothing so far, MBI is a high-priced operation. As far as I can tell, last year MBI spent $1 million of those state funds on consultants, lawyers, and administrative costs in order to hand $4 million to Comcast to provide its usual service to about a thousand homes in those nine Massachusetts towns that already had some cable service. What’s odd is that MBI told the public it chose Comcast because the company had vast experience and could get the work done without involving MBI—so it cost $1 million in oversight expenses to choose a company that doesn’t need oversight.

Despite protests from many residents across WiredWest’s would-be service area, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sided with his bureaucrats and stalled rural broadband deployment further with a temporary hold, which some claimed gave MBI and community broadband opponents additional time to further undermine WiredWest’s efforts.

Most recently, the same agency that wrung its hands worrying about the efficacy of WiredWest had no problem offering a quick $20 million in grants to private companies for rural broadband solutions. Few in broadband-challenged western Massachusetts are likely to be happy about the results of the latest machinations of MBI’s “free market solution with public taxpayer funds.” Last week, the public got its first look at the submitted applications, largely underwhelming in scope and specifics. None come close to offering the kind of ubiquitous and affordable broadband WiredWest proposed.

MBI also tailored their request for proposals to arbitrarily limit applicants, declaring only companies with $100 million in yearly revenue and at least five years experience building, operating, and maintaining residential broadband networks need apply. Had Google Fiber proposed to wire the entire region with fiber optics in an application, MBI would have turned Google down for lack of experience. (Google Fiber launched service in late 2012.) In fact, no startup or municipal project of any kind could realistically apply. Comcast and Charter could, and both did.

MBI claims each town will make their own final decision, but many communities have already done that by choosing WiredWest. Some towns are frustrated by the state’s interminable delays and politics and are discouraged with the potential spectacle of MBI continuing to throw up roadblocks for political reasons. Those communities are planning their own alternative projects if WiredWest can never get off the ground. The only current alternative is hoping a private company will step up and deliver service. Six applicants responded to MBI’s request for proposals from private providers. Only two showed any willingness to offer service across all of broadband-challenged western and central Massachusetts. Two others were cable operators that have neglected expanding service on their own because it was not profitable to do so. Another two applicants only wanted to serve a handful of communities. Here is an overview of the proposals:

Crocker Communications: Short on specifics, Crocker’s proposal claims an interest in wiring almost 40 unserved communities for $59.15 million, including $18.33 million in taxpayer funds, split into individual grants for each community. But even Crocker, among the most ambitious and detailed applicants, cannot meet MBI’s revenue qualifications, so it attempts to claim a vendor relationship with Fujitsu Network Communications of Japan, which supplies network infrastructure. How Fujitsu would be financially involved in the project to minimize the chances of Crocker running into financial problems while building out its proposed network is not adequately explained. Crocker only specifies $5 million of its own assets will be on the line.

Crocker’s website promotes the company’s desire to have a bigger presence in the state thanks to its cooperation with MBI. Crocker currently provides internet service to customers of a Leverett-based community broadband project. Coincidentally, Peter d’Errico of Leverett’s Broadband Committee was one of the contributors to MBI’s sponsored report slamming the WiredWest project as unrealistic and underfunded. We’re not sure what d’Errico thinks about Crocker Communications’ proposal, which asks for grants as little as $150,000 to help wire one community — New Ashford.

In an aspirational executive summary, Matthew Crocker, president of Crocker Communications, offers an admission there are “inherent challenges in fulfilling the Request For Proposals.” His conclusion: “If this were easy, it would be well underway.”

Crocker’s proposal won’t be easy for roughly 30% of those living in the nearly 40 communities his company proposes to serve. That’s because his company won’t be serving them. Crocker’s proposal only suggests he will deliver service to about 70% of the service area. MBI wanted proposals that would reach 96% of the population. But there will be plenty of time to contemplate these points. Crocker’s proposal warns residents may have to wait until 2021 before they can get service. That will give would-be customers four years to save enough money to pay Crocker’s proposed installation fees: “under $2,000 for 70% of homes passed” or “$3,000 for 96% of homes passed.” Ouch.

Whip City Fiber: Even more murky than Crocker Communications’ proposal, Westfield Gas & Electric’s “Whip City” fiber service submitted a plan offering to serve any of the 40 communities MBI identifies as underserved, but the details aren’t there, except to describe the service the company already provides to its own customers. The actual number of towns to be served and the schedule to launch service are all: TBD = To Be Determined.

Mid-Hudson Data: The most modest of proposals from this Catskill, N.Y. based company seeks $260,000 to offer 279 homes fiber service and wireless for another 20 in the community of Tyringham. Customers would pay an installation fee of $150. While potentially good news for customer living near George Cannon Road, it isn’t much help to the rest of the region.

Fiber Connect, LLC: Another modest proposal from this regionally based ISP offers to provide broadband service for Alford, Becket, New Marlborough, Otis, Tolland and Tyringham. The proposal notes the company is already running a pilot broadband program in Monterey and Egremont. One potential stumbling block is a poorly explained installation fee ranging from $0 if municipalities agree to a “fixed average cost” that could be included in grant funding or a municipally guaranteed lease-to-own payment to $299 if a customers apply for a mysterious promotion or rebate, or $999 which is defined as the basic “initial installation cost.”

Charter Communications: Formerly Time Warner Cable, Charter is hunting for taxpayer-funded grants to expand broadband service to Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, Princeton and Shutesbury. All of those communities are near existing Charter/Time Warner Cable systems and the company spared no time in their application promoting their existing close ties with MBI to bring broadband to Hinsdale, Lanesborough, and West Stockbridge. Charter claims it can expand its cable service into the nearby communities in a “reasonable amount of time” but does not get more specific than that.

Comcast: Boils down its application to “we’re doing you a favor, but you pay” language reminding MBI the communities Comcast now proposes to serve: Goshen, Montgomery, Princeton and Shutesbury don’t come close to Comcast’s demand for return on its investment. But since taxpayers are helping to foot the bill….

The one noticeable difference Comcast has over all the rest of the applicants is a page-and-a-half of details about the various regulator-imposed fines and penalties it has had to pay recently for being an ongoing menace to its own customers. Is it arrogance for a company to assume such a vast number of damaging disclosures would not lead a responsible grantor to put the application in the circular file, or is it something else? After all, Comcast was already awarded up to $4 million in taxpayer funds in Massachusetts as a gushing press release reported in August, 2016:

WESTBOROUGH – The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech (MBI) and Comcast have reached an agreement that will extend broadband access in nine municipalities in Western and North Central Massachusetts, a project which is estimated to deliver broadband connectivity to 1,089 new residences and businesses, and will bring the overall coverage level in each town to 96% or above. The grant will provide up to $4 million in state funds to reimburse partial project costs for Comcast, which has existing networks in each of the towns, to construct broadband internet extensions to additional homes and businesses.

“This agreement further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to tackling broadband connectivity challenges for unserved residents and businesses,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This public-private partnership will deliver sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity to nine rural communities that previously faced significant coverage gaps, allowing nearly 1,100 households and businesses to participate more fully in the digital economy.”

“Our results-oriented approach to bridging broadband access gaps is connecting thousands of rural residents to the modern internet,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We will continue to employ a dynamic, flexible approach to the Last Mile project, and seek solutions that meet the unique needs of communities and residents unserved by broadband access.”

The construction of the broadband extensions in Buckland, Conway, Chester, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne is estimated to be completed within two years from the start of the project. The public-private partnership will extend high-speed internet service to unserved residents at speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s definition of broadband service, through a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network.

Wired West Responds With a New Plan

Faced with insurmountable political obstacles, the folks behind WiredWest have bowed to the reality of the current political landscape and reintroduced themselves and their newest plan to get western Massachusetts wired for fiber optic broadband while trying to avoid any further encounters with MBI’s speed bumps and obstacles.

If WiredWest made one mistake, it was forgetting to establish the one connection that apparently matters more than anything else in Massachusetts: a political connection with state lawmakers. But the indefatigable group has not given up, and if the MBI is being honest about being an impartial partner in improving rural broadband in Massachusetts, there is still a better option available to communities than the six proposals recently submitted to MBI. That option is WiredWest.

In its latest proposal WiredWest would continue to play a significant role in the network after being built, with proven service plans that will deliver real broadband service to residents at rates comparable to what private companies charge. But the project will rely on member towns to construct their own fiber networks using private contractors and state and local funding. That puts more responsibility and network ownership in the hands of each individual town, an idea some towns originally rejected as too expensive and cumbersome. But MBI holds the money and has apparently rewritten the rules, so what MBI wants is what MBI will get.

The added cost to the project and the communities involved is significant: there will be some towns that cannot afford or manage the responsibility of constructing their own fiber networks and will likely drop out of the project. The new network plan will also increase costs WiredWest originally hoped to avoid. The group’s financial model also effectively subsidized some of the costs for the smallest and least able communities — a model that could be gone for good.

Each participating town network that does eventually get built will be connected in a ring topology to MassBroadband123, the state’s “middle mile” fiber network that is run privately by Axia Networks. At this point, it appears 14 communities are still on board with WiredWest, seven are “considering” the new WiredWest plan, and another 16 are “pursuing other options” but have not ruled out staying with WiredWest.

It is our recommendation that communities do everything possible to stay loyal to WiredWest, which has a proven track record of being responsive and accessible to communities across the region. Bucking the state’s inexcusable political interference by remaining united sends a strong message that local communities know best what they need, not a high-priced consultant, Springfield-based lawyers and bureaucrats, or the governor. None of those people have to live with the consequences of inferior or non-existent broadband and none have given the problem the kind of serious attention WiredWest has. The biggest challenge to WiredWest isn’t its financial sustainability, it is politics, and that needs to stop.

We’ve reviewed the submissions from MBI’s latest round of grant funding for private projects and they are all inadequate. While many of the companies involved are well-meaning and we believe could play a role in improving rural broadband, most of the applications seem to have been rushed and many lack specifics.

The region should not accept any plan offering only 70% broadband coverage, much less a proposal that will force another four-year wait for broadband (we credit Crocker Communications for at least including a specific timetable, something many of the other proposals did not.) Installation fees up to $3,000 are also unaffordable, with or without a financing plan.

Some analysts still worry if WiredWest can attract enough customers to be sustainable. If it isn’t, most of the private projects MBI has received applications for certainly are not either. Assuming customers can afford a few thousand dollars for installation — a major impediment to getting new customers, there is no guarantee which homes will get service and when. Competitively speaking, considering the only available alternative in most cases is spotty 1-6Mbps DSL from Verizon — a service the company has lost interest in improving or expanding — Verizon is likely to receive the same treatment it gets in other communities where better alternatives exist — a mass exodus of customers cutting Verizon’s cord for good. In fact, Verizon may ultimately sell its landline network in western Massachusetts to another company as it continues to disengage from its wireline businesses. It is highly unlikely any competitor of WiredWest will guarantee access to at least 25Mbps broadband.

WiredWest proposes to charge $59 for 25Mbps or $75 for 1,000Mbps broadband. Digital phone service is $19 a month. An installation fee of $99 will also apply. That is not out of line with what cable companies and other gigabit providers have charged, and they have won a comfortable market share. Private cable and phone companies also continue to raise rates on broadband, if only because they can, providing additional competitive insulation.

MBI’s grants should also not be the end of the story. New York last week rescued up to $170 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) to expand broadband deployment in unserved rural areas of New York State — money Verizon forfeited by expressing no interest in rural broadband expansion. That precedent opens the door for other states to recapture similar federal grants, including those that could target western Massachusetts where Verizon has also declined to accept CAF money. That could ease some of the money worries about WiredWest’s construction costs as well.

At the end of the day, area residents have turned up repeatedly at various events across the region holding signs supporting their choice in local providers: WiredWest. Nobody was holding up a sign hoping Comcast or Charter would be the company that finally brings broadband to their communities. The irony of using taxpayer dollars to fund Comcast in particular is not lost on their customers — many that loathe the company and wish they had another choice. Handing $20 million to that cable giant to expand in western Massachusetts guarantees their newest customers won’t have a choice either. Isn’t it time to give these communities what they want? They clearly want WiredWest.

British Company Solves High Cost of Last Mile Fiber Installation: Use Existing Water Pipes

The Atlantis T-Series is designed to bring a bundle of fiber optic cables to small hamlets or villages through a central water supply system.

One of the biggest barriers to making fiber-to-the-home broadband service available in suburban and rural areas is the cost to dig a trench or string a cable across a property to reach the customer. A British company has patented a clever solution to this last-mile problem by inserting a tiny conduit into pre-existing water supply lines that contains enough optical fiber to power tens of gigabits of internet speed into even the most difficult to reach homes and businesses.

The Craley Group’s Atlantis Hydrotec solution places two temporary holes in the water supply line at the street connection and inside the home through which the non-toxic, environmentally friendly conduit containing the optical fibers passes with no effect on the water supply. The impact on the homeowner is limited to a quick visit to install a connection from the home’s incoming water pipe to an internet router. No trenching or digging is required, and the cost savings from not having to bring in heavy digging equipment, obtain permits to manage traffic-disrupting digs, or tear up lawns and gardens are as high as 70%, making fiber installation cheap and fast for providers.

Craley’s inexpensive solution can make the difference between getting rural fiber broadband or not. In suburban and rural areas, the company’s “T-Series” conduit can be installed in a pre-existing neighborhood or village water system, with individual connections possible for each neighborhood, apartment, home and/or business along a route up to two kilometers long. Up to 288 individual optical fibers are available for use by the provider in each segment. Multiple segments can be used to further extend the network as needed.

Repurposing existing utility infrastructure is not a new idea. Using sewer pipes to accommodate fiber optic cables has been around for several years, and some communities have used them for delivering broadband. But not every project has been successful, and using water pipes for broadband may run into similar problems.

The two primary reasons repurposing infrastructure projects like these fail are money and politics, and it is often for both reasons. If the water authority in an area objects to its infrastructure being tampered with, it is unlikely a provider will win permission to use Craley’s solution. Some water managers may fear the physical connections to existing water pipes could weaken or damage them, although Craley insists this is not the case. In communities where the water supply is a publicly owned resource, there may be political objections to allowing private companies to use public infrastructure — problems that might be resolved through contracts that include provider payments. But if those amounts are too high, licensing Craley’s method may no longer deliver the promised potential savings. In other cases, it may simply come down to a managerial “control” issue.

Consumer confusion can also pose a problem, especially among those that believe any exposure to electronic signals of any kind will impact their health. Fiber optics, of course, transports light signals, but that fact may not be understood by everyone.

There are also examples of communities that had to abandon sewer pipe conduits in favor of traditional trenching because of difficult to overcome objections from local authorities that manage the sewer system, fearing sewer cables will create blockages or other obstructions. Craley hopes the fact its system does not place optical fibers in contact with the water supply and is very unlikely to be an obstacle to the delivery of safe drinking water will overcome traditional skepticism. The technology has proven effective in a small community near Barcelona, Spain, where fiber to the home service was installed using Craley’s system.

It didn’t hurt that the company installing the fiber optic system was the same one that maintains and operates the local water system, which cut through any potential red tape or concerns.

“We have been most impressed with this system and during the installation we gained great insight into the product, installation techniques, and our engineering staff got on-the-job training,” said Jose Maria, the general manager of ATCA, the local water company. “We can really see the advantages of this solution.”

Additional field trials are also underway in New Zealand.

This Craley Group-produced video talks about the benefits of using existing utility infrastructure instead of trenching to supply fiber optic broadband to homes. (3:21)

This company produced video explores the problems faced by rural homeowners with no or inadequate broadband, and how using innovative methods of bringing fiber to the home need not be too expensive. (3:12)

Virginia Being Scammed With Industry-Ghostwritten Broadband Ban Bill

Del. Kathy Byron (R-Big Telecom)

What is one of the most effective ways to stop competition in its tracks before it can even get off the ground? Reward a state legislator with generous campaign contributions who introduces a bill banning your would-be competitor and get back to business as usual.

Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Campbell County) has broadband, but many of the people who live and work in central and western Virginia near her district don’t. Located in south-central Virginia, the county of 55,000 endures similar broadband availability and quality problems other communities in the western half of the state experience. Located near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county seat of Rustburg has areas served by DSL, and many other areas that are not. For telecom companies serving mountainous and rural communities in this part of the state, broadband is often not economically viable enough to meet Return On Investment formulas. In fact, the problems are so significant, the southwestern Virginia community of Claudville was selected as the nation’s first testing ground for “white space” wireless broadband, designed to serve sparsely populated rural areas.

Byron’s district in Campbell County is neither wealthy or rich in internet options. Like other communities in the region, the decline of manufacturing and the transition away from tobacco production has created enormous economic challenges. Campbell County is continuing to rely heavily on agriculture while other communities in Virginia and the Carolinas are reinventing themselves to participate in the 21st century knowledge economy. That requires 21st century broadband service, which Campbell County lacks.

Last fall, Campbell County Public Schools assistant superintendent Robert Arnold provided a frank assessment of the area’s broadband problems, telling The News & Advance schoolchildren in his district suffer from a “homework gap,” unable to complete assignments requiring the internet at home because those homes lacked access. A recent trial of “white space” broadband in the area proved unsatisfactory because, in Arnold’s view, it was unreliable.

“We’re not seeing it as a reliable solution to our problems to get internet more readily available to kids that don’t have it in the different parts of our county where there are a lot of dead spots,” Arnold said.

Even wireless providers have not stepped up. Efforts to encourage cellular companies to place antennas on the same towers used for the “white space” broadband experiment have failed as well. The newspaper reports the lack of population makes private providers “squeamish about expanding there.”

The Campbell County school system managed to switch to a fiber optic network, but the only chance students will have that option at home is if local communities choose to offer it themselves and that will never happen if Ms. Byron’s bill becomes law.

Despite the broadband challenges in her district and the failure of private providers to correct them, Byron went ahead this month and introduced the ironically-named “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act,” another bought-and-paid-for industry-ghostwritten municipal broadband ban bill that would grant near-monopoly control to the same providers that have steadfastly refused to improve rural broadband in Virginia.

Her bill, according to The Roanoke Times, is the height of hypocrisy for a Republican claiming to be pro-business development:

Byron’s bill would make it difficult for existing municipal broadband authorities to expand and new ones to get started. Curiously, for a bill sponsored by a Republican, it would create more regulation, by requiring that the state authorize any creation or expansion of a broadband authority (plus lays on other regulations, as well.) For a bill that purports to protect the free market, it actually distrusts the free market: If telecommunications companies were already providing the service the rest of the business community wanted, the business community wouldn’t be clamoring for local governments to step in.

Spent lavishly on Byron – her second largest contributor.

The newspaper shouldn’t be surprised. Politicians willing to introduce these lovingly hand-crafted turf protection bills ask themselves only one question: are the generous corporate campaign contributions that usually accompany these “model bills” still worth it if the voters find out? Even if they do, a well-funded propaganda campaign sponsored by Big Telecom companies slamming municipal broadband as a government internet takeover or a guaranteed economic failure can help give politicians enough cover to avoid being exposed for selling constituents down the river.

It will therefore come as no surprise to regular Stop the Cap! readers that Virginia’s largest telecom companies have spent lavishly on Ms. Byron over the years. Her second largest contributor (next to the Republican Party of Virginia) is Verizon, which spent considerably more on her campaign than other well-heeled companies including Anthem and the Virginia banking lobby. Another major contributor is the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (more on that organization later). Others bringing checks include: AT&T, Sprint, CenturyLink, Comcast and the Virginia Telecommunications Association.

The pattern is all too familiar. Politicians take a sudden interest in telecommunications public policy and almost by magic produce a very detailed (and suspiciously similar) piece of legislation designed to make life impossible for public and community broadband projects, while claiming their bill will improve broadband.

In many cases, the politicians introducing these broadband ban bills are surprisingly unprepared to answer detailed questions about their own legislation, counting on local media to not scrutinize their logic too closely. But every so often, the blank stares and subject-changing that occurs when challenges are put to the alleged authors make us question if they actually read their own bill.

We have.

Byron is on ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force

Also of concern, Ms. Byron and her bill expose several conflicts of interest she has elected to ignore and hope nobody notices, like her membership on the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Communications and Technology Task Force, notorious for promulgating state bills restricting or banning public broadband. ALEC funding comes, in part, from some of the nation’s largest telecom companies.

We noticed.

The backlash Ms. Byron is now receiving from unhappy rural Virginia communities and local media that have read her bill has apparently surprised her, and in subsequent newspaper letters to the editor, she has taken to playing the victim card. But that has not stopped her from maligning municipal broadband projects, hoping that shaking those shiny keys will distract enough people from focusing on what is actually in her bill.

We put her keys away.

Stop the Cap! has reviewed her bill, also known as House Bill 2108, and what we found astonished us more than usual, and we’ve seen just about every kind of shilling imaginable:

§ 56-484.28. Provision of broadband expansion services.

Notwithstanding any provision of the Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act (§ 15.2-5431.1 et seq.) or any other provision of law, a locality or any affiliate may own and operate a broadband or Internet communications system, including ownership or lease of fiber optic or other communications lines and facilities, to provide broadband expansion services only if the following conditions are met:

1. The locality or its affiliate has obtained a comprehensive broadband assessment by report or study, by the Center for Innovative Technology, or an independent consulting firm knowledgeable and experienced in analyzing broadband deployment, which report or study is made available to the public and specifically identifies any unserved areas.  The locality or its affiliate shall be responsible for all fees charged by the Center for Innovative Technology or an independent consulting firm for the preparation of such comprehensive broadband assessment report or study.

2. Based upon the comprehensive broadband assessment, the locality or its affiliate formally adopts and publishes specific broadband goals regarding capacity, geography and documented demand for Internet services in the specific unserved areas which the locality or its affiliate desires to address.

3. The locality or its affiliate has issued a request or solicitation for proposals, consistent with the specific broadband goals of the locality previously identified, requesting the capital cost which an existing for-profit local Internet service provider offering communications services with broadband speeds would incur to meet the locality’s specific broadband goals by extending or upgrading such services with broadband speeds to any specific unserved areas of the locality identified in the comprehensive broadband assessment.  Copies of such request or solicitation shall be sent to any franchised cable operator and other known Internet service providers with local facilities offering communications services in the locality at least 180 days in advance of the deadline for the response to the request or solicitation for proposals. The governing body of the locality or its affiliate shall analyze any responses it receives to determine if capital grants or subsidies by the locality to pay for such extension by an existing provider would be more cost effective than construction and operation of a new distribution system by the locality or its affiliate.

4. If no incumbent broadband provider advises the governing body of the locality within six months after the release of the request or solicitation for proposal that it is willing or able to meet the local goals, either without a capital grant or subsidy, or with the capital grant or subsidy or portion thereof proposed by the locality, then the governing body of the locality or its affiliate, after a public hearing, may vote to authorize one or more projects, consistent with the specific broadband goals of the locality previously identified,  to provide broadband expansion services to unserved areas within the locality identified by the comprehensive broadband assessment report or study described above, which report or study shall not be more than one year old at the time of the public hearing.  The chief executive officer of the locality or its affiliate shall certify that the comprehensive broadband assessment report or study identification of unserved areas is still correct based upon information presented at the hearing.

5. Any locality or affiliate project to provide broadband expansion services shall be designed and built or otherwise implemented so that at the time of authorization, the project (i) does not duplicate existing broadband facilities offering broadband speeds to customers, within 90 percent of the geographic area of the project, and (ii) does not duplicate service to customers who already are in a position to connect to an Internet service offering broadband speeds, for 90 percent of the projected residential and commercial customers who will be served by the project or otherwise are within the service area of the project.

6. Any locality or its affiliates seeking to offer or offering broadband expansion services shall, at least 120 days prior to commencement of construction of any project, file with the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, (i) copies of its report or study from the Center for Innovative Technology, including any updates or supplements thereto, (ii) copies of the minutes of the meeting at which it voted to authorize the offering of broadband expansion services, (iii) a map or description of each project and projected area in which it plans to offer broadband expansion services, (iv) an annual certification by July 1 of each year that any expansion to or changes in its projects or system since the preceding July 1 still qualify as broadband expansion services, and (v) an annual certification that its provision of services meets or in the case of a prospective or an incomplete project shall meet, the requirements of subdivisions 1 through 6 of § 56-484.30.  Any person who believes that any part of such filings is incomplete, incorrect or false and who is in the business of providing Internet services within the locality shall have standing to bring an action in the circuit court for the locality to seek to require the locality to either comply with the substantive and procedural content of the filings required by this section, or cease to provide services, and no bond shall be required for injunctive relief against the locality.

In condensed form, this section claims to help facilitate municipal broadband service in “unserved areas,” but then hamstrings local communities to an extent that makes offering such a service next to impossible. The irony of a Republican legislator advocating detailed and burdensome regulations for a publicly owned provider while concurrently supporting “hands-off” policies for her campaign contributor-provider pals should not be lost on her constituents.

The bill could have been called the “Virginia Duopoly Protection Act,” because it only really allows public broadband development in unserved areas, and only after a community pays for a “broadband assessment” that the bill also mandates be sent to its potential competitors — private cable and telephone companies. Imagine if AT&T was required to send copies of their business plans to Comcast and Charter.

Even worse, phone and cable companies are guaranteed a “heads-up” when a community provider is thinking about providing service, exactly where that service will go, and how much it will cost the community to offer it. Companies on the wrong side of the law used to hire spies to get that information from competitors. Byron’s bill makes Virginia communities pay for the postage required to mail those plans to telecom companies serving their area.

Being given access to what even cable and phone companies would consider highly confidential information isn’t enough. Ms. Byron’s bill allows them to take their time reading it. In fact, her bill gives incumbent providers up to six months to stall, sabotage, or undercut the community effort. They are given the right to underbid the community’s proposal and ironically deliver service in places they have previously refused to serve.

“While it’s good to be specific about what a community plans to do, incumbent providers don’t have to adhere to the same level of transparency,” noted Lisa Gonzalez at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “As a result, publicly owned networks are at a disadvantage under such requirements when an incumbent knows where, what, when, and how much a municipality intends to invest to bring service to its community. When incumbents build or upgrade, they are not subject to the same level of exposure. Potential private partners who may consider leasing infrastructure or working with a community in some other capacity could also be put off by drastic transparency rules.”

Any of Virginia’s phone and cable companies could end the demand for municipal broadband tomorrow by simply providing the level of service communities need to participate in the digital economy. That requires connected education and high quality broadband for entrepreneurs and established businesses. Instead of providing that, companies write large campaign contribution checks to state politicians like Ms. Byron to slow down or sabotage any emerging competition. While stalling germinating broadband projects, providers will spend millions to demagogue them in the local media, throw every obstacle in their path, and then point to the delays and cost overruns as evidence municipal broadband is a failure.

In Tennessee, EPB had to face down a deep-pocketed cable industry lawsuit before it could begin offering gigabit internet broadband and television service. EPB eventually won the lawsuit and the service now attracts a substantial market share in Chattanooga, but critics carp it was only successful because it got a federal grant. They ignore the fact it has paid substantial dividends in job growth and enhanced the lives of local citizens, who vote for the service with their wallets.

The fact critical cable and phone companies risk charges of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to move them, even though they are not averse to accepting tax breaks and other government goodies as well. That is why providers instead use well-funded third-party astroturf groups and legislators to do their dirty work. Byron’s bill is more obvious than most, with obstructive sections mandating very short windows for public hearings, blatant protectionism, and a thicket of bureaucratic regulations designed to give ample opportunities for industry mischief with the filing of frivolous motions to run out the clock and run up costs.

§ 56-484.29. Provision of overbuild broadband services.

Any locality or its affiliate that is providing overbuild broadband services as of July 1, 2017, may continue to serve customers within the geographic service area within which it is actually providing such services as of that date; however, except as hereafter provided such locality or its affiliate shall not subsequently expand the geographic scope of its services or expand the nature of the service being offered.  Any locality or its affiliate that is not actually providing overbuild broadband services as of July 1, 2017, or if providing such services, subsequently seeks to expand the geographic territory or nature of services being offered, shall submit a proposal to the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council with a full explanation of the proposed overbuild broadband services, and if recommended by the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, shall then require the express approval of the General Assembly through legislation approving the offering or expansion of such services by the locality or its affiliate.

Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has reviewed industry-sponsored municipal broadband ban bills, and none to date have illustrated the level of conflict of interest we see here. We call on Virginian officials to carefully investigate the ties Ms. Byron has to cable and phone companies and the ethical concerns raised from her involvement in key state bodies that can make or break rural broadband in Virginia. Byron increasingly exposes an agenda favoring incumbent phone and cable companies that just happen to contribute to her campaign — companies she seems willing to protect at any cost.

In our investigation, we uncovered several disturbing details that suggest questionable behavior from Ms. Byron, primarily from her failure to disclose materially important facts about her bill to fellow elected officials and, more importantly, the public. So far, her only defense to questions raised by the media about her bill is to play the “misunderstood victim” card:

This may be yet another example of media arrogance manifesting itself as a lack of common courtesy. But, I believe the real culprit to be something far more dangerous: the editorial’s author was not going to risk being confused by the facts.

[…] Had someone contacted me, I would have told them about my years of experience serving on Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, which I currently serve as chairman. The purpose of the Council is “to advise the Governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the Commonwealth.” The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act advances that goal. That’s why legislators serving on the Council support House Bill 2108. And, we’re in good company: The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Association of Realtors and the Northern Virginia Technology Council have all indicated their support for House Bill 2108.

Fixed or Fair? If Byron’s bill becomes law, Ray LaMura, Virginia’s top cable lobbyist, will help decide if municipal providers can expand to compete with cable companies.

In fact, we understand Ms. Byron, her telecom industry benefactors, and the special interests she mentions as supporters only too well. We invite Ms. Byron to refute some of our facts:

While broadband in major Virginia cities is no better or worse than other large cities in the region, there are vast areas in central and western Virginia where inadequate broadband service persists, and private providers have been reluctant or unwilling to change that. As a result, some municipalities are considering offering an alternative. Ms. Byron’s bill doesn’t just deter communities from entering the broadband arena in these areas, it carpet-bombs the entrance out of existence.

The section of her bill detailing requirements for community providers seeking to expand requires them to ask permission from an entity known as the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, which Byron disturbingly chairs. If the goal of this Council is to pave the road to improved broadband, Byron’s bill is an enormous pothole. Restricting competition won’t help the Council’s goal of winning lower prices for consumers and businesses either, and last time we checked, broadband bills in Virginia are going up, not down.

Ms. Byron’s clear conflict of interest between her bill and the Council’s goals should be grounds for her immediate resignation. It is hard to justify continuing to serve on a Council promoting better broadband while introducing bills that do the opposite. Taking political campaign contributions from the same companies that are directly responsible for the state of Virginia’s broadband today also makes it impossible for the Council to have any credibility as long as she continues to chair it.

Another concern: Ms. Byron fails to disclose the Council she uses for her defense includes “citizen members” that are, in reality, some of the most important telecom industry lobbyists in the state. Ms. Byron’s bill would require communities to seek approval for broadband expansion from the same Council that counts among its members Ray LaMura, president of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, the state’s largest cable industry lobbying group, and Duront Walton, executive director of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents the interests of several telephone companies in the state.

Conflict of Interest?: Another member of Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council.

Does anyone believe the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council is likely to approve any broadband expansion plan that leads to direct competition with an established cable or phone company, particularly when members like Mr. LaMura write municipal broadband hit pieces prominently linked on his LinkedIn page? Does anyone expect a fair shake from Ms. Byron, who wrote (inaccurately) “the vast majority of municipal broadband systems across the country that have tried to compete with the private sector have failed.”

By all appearances, the fix is in.

While we’re discussing full disclosure, Ms. Byron also failed to mention the Virginia Chamber of Commerce is hardly a dispassionate arbiter of the merits of community broadband — it is a private business lobbying organization. The Virginia Realtors Association is also a political lobbying organization that openly endorsed Ms. Byron’s election campaign, contributed a substantial donation to it, and runs an active Political Action Committee. The Northern Virginia Technology Council is a trade and lobbying organization that counts among its members AT&T, Cox, Comcast, CenturyLink, and Verizon, to name a few. To quote NVTC’s own website: “NVTC members are business leaders focused on the broad business climate of our state and communities.”

We believe Ms. Byron when she said she was in good company. Missing from the cozy gathering are consumers looking for internet access, local governments feeling pressure from their constituents to do something about the problem, and any belief Ms. Byron’s bill will do anything except keep things as they are.

But wait, there is more:

§ 56-484.30. Operating requirements.

The following provisions shall apply to any locality or its affiliate which offers broadband expansion services or overbuild broadband services, after July 1, 2017:

1. A locality or its affiliate shall apply, without discrimination as to itself and any affiliate, including any charges or fees for permits, access or occupancy, the locality’s ordinances, rules, and policies, including those relating to (i) obligation to serve; (ii) access to public rights of way and municipal utility poles and conduits; (iii) permitting; (iv) performance bonding; (v) reporting; and (vi) quality of service.

2. In calculating the rates charged by a locality for any communications service:

 a. The locality or its affiliate shall include within its rates an amount equal to all taxes, fees, and other assessments that would be applicable to a similarly situated private provider of the same communications services, including federal, state, and local taxes; franchise fees; permit fees; pole attachment fees; and any similar fees; and

b. The locality or its affiliate shall not price any of its communications services at a level that is less than the sum of: (i) the actual direct costs of providing the service; (ii) the actual indirect costs of providing the service; and (iii) the amount determined under subdivision 2a.

3. A locality or its affiliate shall keep accurate books and records of any provision of communications services.  A locality or its affiliate shall conduct an annual audit of its books and records associated with any provision of communications services, with such audit to be performed by an independent auditor approved by the Auditor of Public Accounts. Such audit shall include such criteria as the Auditor of Public Accounts deems appropriate and be filed with him, and with copies to be submitted to the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council.  If, after review of such audit, the Auditor of Public Accounts determines that there are violations of this chapter, he shall provide public notice of same, and the locality or its affiliate shall take appropriate corrective action to cure past violations and prevent future violations. […]

§ 56-484.31. Sale or disposal.

Any locality or its affiliate that seeks to sell or dispose of all or any material part of the infrastructure of an internal government services, broadband expansion services, or overbuild broadband services system, or any material portion of any subscriber or service contracts in connection therewith, shall do so by a public sale or auction process after advertisement.

By now, most readers get the point. This bill is a “plan for failure” for municipal broadband.

The ideological pretzel-bending required of Ms. Byron to do the telecom industry’s bidding is a sight to behold. Byron — a Republican — is openly advocating government price regulation, demands municipal providers turn over their books to be reviewed by her Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, which includes cable and telephone company lobbyists, and requires communities that want to abandon networks that fail under this legislative gulag to sell them to the lowest bidder, likely a cable or phone company that helped write the rules.

If this anti-consumer nightmare of a bill becomes law in Virginia, Christmas for Big Telecom will come early this year, and you’re paying… again.

Community Broadband Battle in Savannah Media Pits Local GOP Against Broadband Choice

Savannah, Ga.

The very idea that a city would get involved in selling better broadband service to its residents has sparked a coordinated campaign to sully municipally owned providers and color the results of an ongoing study to determine if Savannah, Ga. is getting the kind of internet access it needs.

While the city and county continue their Broadband Fiber-Optic Feasibility Study and survey residents about incumbent providers including AT&T, Comcast, and Hargray Communications, an organized pressure campaign coordinated by the Chatham County GOP is well underway to undermine any idea the city should compete against the three dominant local internet providers.

“The purpose of this study is to examine how we are currently served with broadband infrastructure, particularly focused on the services available to our community residents, anchor institutions, businesses, and key services like public safety, health and education,” a Savannah city spokesperson told Stop the Cap!

The city’s goal is to: “confirm that residents, anchor institutions and businesses have access to the services they need and that those services are competitively priced.” Incumbent providers are betting the answer to that question will likely be no and have started early opposition to discourage the city from attempting to build its own broadband network. Comcast and AT&T have apparently teamed up with the local Chatham County GOP to defend current providers in suspiciously similar-sounding letters to the editor.

Consider two examples.

About a month ago, Stephen Plunk, executive secretary of the Chatham County Republican Party, liberally sprinkled talking points provided by outside think tanks in an editorial published by the Savannah Morning News:

The Savannah Morning News published this ominous illustration adjacent to a guest editorial from a Chatham County GOP official opposing public broadband.

Only 6,000 residents in Chatham County, out of about 280,000, do not have access to wired internet of any sort. About 90 percent of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired internet service providers . The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its 12 business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit.

Private providers also are making big new investments here. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also will begin offering superfast capacity.

Next, let’s look at whether a city should provide service directly to customers. Or, is it wise? To determine that, the city council must ask itself whether it wants to go down the path of Marietta, which ran its own internet company several years ago but was forced to sell that network at a loss when it failed to turn a profit year after year. Marietta’s mayor eventually admitted the city never should have become an ISP. There are government ISPs that do make a profit every year, but they are rare. Chattanooga’s government-run system is often touted as a model, but the city received more than $100 million from the federal government to get its system started.

This morning, Mary Flanders, chairwoman of the Chatham County GOP wrote essentially the same things in an “opposing views” piece published by the Connect Savannah weekly newspaper (and at least cited some of her sources):

They should proceed carefully. Cautionary tales about municipal broadband networks abound.

Consider the situation in Marietta, the sprawling suburb northwest of Atlanta. Marietta started its own municipal network that stretched along a 210-mile long route. After spending $35 million to build out the network, Marietta earned a grand total of 180 customers.

The then-Mayor said the city couldn’t keep pace with the expenses associated with the constant flood of technology upgrades required to manage a broadband network. The city ultimately sold the network in 2004 for a $20 million loss.

Pacific Research Institute, in a report on municipal broadband, found that “Mariettans had decided that they would rather take a $20.33 million loss than continue to subsidize a municipal telecom venture that was sucking their city dry.”

Marietta may be relatively close to home, but it’s not the only example. Provo, Utah spent $40 million to build its network, only to sell it to Google Fiber for the princely sum of $1. In Groton, Connecticut, taxpayers lost $38 million.

City leaders need to consider the downside risk to municipal services if and when the broadband network fails to attract customers and generate case. The shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Where will the money come from? Tax hikes?

Budget cuts to basic services or to the police or fire department? Try explaining that to voters come election time, especially if the crime rate is on the rise.

According to Kelly McCutcheon, President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, typically the consultants are the only ones who come out good on these deals. It would be a bitter pill to swallow by Savannah citizens and city leaders alike.

Let’s dig into some of the specifics on Internet needs in Savannah. Of the 280,000 residents in Chatham County, only 6,000 residents do not have access to wired Internet of any kind. About 90% of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired Internet service providers (ISPs).

The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its twelve business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit, which is considered to be very speedy in the Internet world.

Private providers also are making big new investments in the area. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also would begin offering incredibly fast capacity to Savannah entrepreneurs.

On track to be profitable by 2006, local politics forced an early sale of the community fiber network that was succeeding.

Most of these talking points have been debunked by Stop the Cap! over our nine-year history. The examples of municipal broadband failures are so few and far between, we’ve come to recognize them, and many of the shop worn examples provided by the Chatham County Republicans are more than five years old.

In Groton, Conn., the emergence of a municipal provider inspired network upgrades and more competition from Comcast while the phone company Southern New England Telephone (later AT&T and today Frontier Communications) did everything possible to keep the publicly owned provider from offering phone services to customers. In the end, Comcast undercut the municipal provider and AT&T’s deployment of U-verse created problems for the then-rosy revenue projections the municipal provider was depending on to recoup its original construction costs. The network was sold five years ago to a private provider and customers still appreciate the quality of the original network today run by Thames Valley Communications, which rates four out of five stars while its competitors Frontier and Comcast rate two. It would be wrong to assume today’s municipal broadband providers have not learned important lessons and now account for incumbents responding to competition with heavily discounted rate retention plans for customers threatening to leave, as well as network upgrades. Revenue projections have become more conservative, both to deal with unexpected construction costs and the revenue likely to be earned in light of cut-rate plans from the competition. But many customers make the switch anyway, persuaded by the quality and reliability of superior fiber networks, rate stability, and a more responsive level of customer service.

The networks in Provo, Utah and Marietta, Ga., are examples of what happens when politicians opposed to the concept of municipal broadband intentionally meddle with them in an effort to prove an ideological argument or to help move along a pre-conceived sale of publicly owned infrastructure to private companies.

In Provo, the fiber to the home network was built and quickly hamstrung by a Utah state law that forbade the city from selling broadband service to the public. Instead, it had to sell wholesale access to private companies it had to attract, who in turn would provide service to the public. Imagine a marketing campaign for a new provider that required customers to deal with two unfamiliar providers just to sign up.

Christopher Mitchell, who studies municipal networks and advocates for community involvement in broadband, wrote a year ago iProvo was facing serious challenges primarily because politicians and industry lobbyists got in the way:

“Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to ‘protect’ taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

“However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder.”

Marietta’s experience with municipal broadband failed only because a new mayor unilaterally declared it an ideological failure and sold the network at a loss for political reasons. We covered that debacle ourselves back in 2012:

In Marietta, the public broadband “collapse” was one-part political intrigue and two-parts media myth.

Marietta FiberNet was never built as a fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers.  Instead, it was created as an institutional and business-only fiber network, primarily for the benefit of large companies in northern Cobb County and parts of Atlanta.  The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported on July 29, 2004 that Marietta FiberNet “lost” $24 million and then sold out at a loss to avoid any further losses.  But in fact, the sloppy journalist simply calculated the “loss” by subtracting the construction costs from the sale price, completely ignoring the revenue the network was generating for several years to pay off the costs to build the network.

In reality, Marietta FiberNet had been generating positive earnings every year since 2001 and was fully on track to be in the black by the first quarter of 2006.

So why did Marietta sell the network?  Politics.

Marietta’s then-candidate for mayor, Bill Dunway, did not want the city competing with private telecommunications companies.  If elected, he promised he would sell the fiber network to the highest bidder.

He won and he did, with telecommunications companies underbidding for a network worth considerably more, knowing full well the mayor treated the asset as “must go at any price.”  The ultimate winner, American Fiber Systems, got the whole network for a song.  Contrary to claims from that the network was a “failure,” AFS retained the entire management of the municipal system and continued following the city’s marketing plan.  So much for the meme government doesn’t know how to operate a broadband business.

While members of the Chatham County GOP took potshots at outside consultants hired to consider whether Savannah should explore offering community broadband, Ms. Flanders was far more sanguine about her sources: the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

In fact, the Pacific “Research Institute” doesn’t do independent research and it’s not an institute. It’s a right-wing, dark money-funded think tank with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, like PRI, prides itself on not revealing the sources of its funding, but SourceWatch uncovered their financial ties to the Donors Capital Fund, a corporate-“murky money maze” specifically designed to hide corporate contributions and the motives those companies have to send the money. So it isn’t a stretch to assume that when a think tank suddenly takes an interest in municipal broadband, checks from AT&T, Comcast, and others have proven to be helpful motivators.

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