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Colorado Voters Choose Local Control In 26 Communities

We didn't need a crystal ball, magic potion, or ESP to predict that local Colorado voters would enthusiastically reclaim telecommunications authority yesterday. Twenty-six more local governments put the issue on the ballot and citizens fervently replied, “YES! YES, WE DO!”

Colorado local communities that want to take action to improve their local connectivity are hogtied by SB 152, the state law passed in 2005. Unless they hold a referendum and ask voters if they wish to reclaim the right to do so, the law prevents local governments from providing service or partnering with the private sector. Since the big incumbents that pushed the law through aren't providing necessary connectivity, their only choice is to opt out and work with new partners or move forward on their own.

This year’s results include seven counties and 19 municipalities. Many of those communities simply don't want lobbyists in Denver dictating whether they can move ahead in the digital economy. Over the past few years, the momentum has grown and, as places like Longmont, Rio Blanco County, and Centennial prove that local authority can improve local connectivity, more local governments have put the issue on the ballot. 

The Big “Yes” In 95

Results from ballot initiatives varied by modest degree but all left no doubt that the local electorate want out of SB 152. Breckenridge came in with 89 percent. Montezuma County, where local media expressed support of the opt out earlier this month, passed the measure with 70 percent of the vote. The community with the highest percentage of support for opting out of SB 152 was Black Hawk with 97 percent of votes cast. The lowest percentage of "yes" vote was Woodland Park in Teller County with 55 percent. The average "yes" vote was 76 percent.

This election brings the total to 29 of Colorados 64 counties or 45 percent of counties. Sixty-six of the state's municipalities have opted out. In total, 95 local governments have restored their authority to create local Internet choice.

See the table and map below for a complete list of election results for this year AND to see where other communities have passed the law in years prior.

The State Law Coloradans Don’t Want

In 2005, the Centennial State passed SB 152, a law advanced by large incumbent providers aimed at limiting competition. Under the guise of a “level playing field” for big national companies, the state law prevents local government from providing “telecommunication service” and “advanced service” to the public. In places where those same big corporate providers don’t care to offer it either, residents, businesses, and governments are extremely disadvantaged. Economic development is at risk; school kids can’t learn how to use 21st century tools; healthcare is hobbled.

Communities can, however, hold a referendum and choose to opt out of SB 152, which many have already done. Before this election, 22 counties and 47 cities had already voted to shed themselves of SB 152. The majority of these communities did not gently reach out and pick up local authority - voters snatched it back with 70, 80, and 90 percent of votes cast. Clearly they want options beyond the national cable and DSL providers.

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Munis Or Partnerships, Opting Out Comes First

Colorado communities presenting the measure to voters and elected officials point out that, even where there are no current plans for towns or counties to establish a municipal Internet utility, opting out is a necessary precursor to partnerships with the private sector. In a recent Gazette guest column, El Paso County commissioner Sallie Clarke wrote:

It just makes sense that if public entities are building the "middle mile" infrastructure for public safety purposes, private companies should be able to use excess capacity to make it more efficient to extend broadband services. If those fiber optic lines to its facilities and those lines have excess capacity, it is more efficient for private providers to tie into those lines and build out service to homes and businesses.

El Paso County commissioners voted unanimously this summer to put the issue on the ballot. The situation is dire and incumbents aren't helping. There are a number of residents in rural areas of the county who complain about no access. "We can't get providers to give us service because there is no access to the 'middle mile,” said Chris Davis of the Canterbury Estate homeowners’ association.

According to a Cortez Journal editorial, the national providers have not honored their promises to connect rural Colorado, so they should let others give it a try:

Internet providers have cherry-picked the lucrative markets and left small communities and even more sparsely populated rural areas with substandard Internet services that are far from high speed. Now it is time for the public sector to step out from under SB 152 restrictions.

There were also two large forest fires in El Paso County this past summer and lack of connectivity made it difficult for emergency personnel to communicate. One plan is to install conduit to encourage private providers to serve the area.

Teller County and El Paso County are working together to search for ways to improve connectivity in the region. According to their broadband plan, average speeds in the region are 8 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.7 Mbps upload, well below the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Before they make any investment, however, Teller and El Paso County had to opt out of SB 152. Ballots cast passed the measure by 56 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Hello, Denver! Your Citizens Don't Want This Bad Law!

During the past year, the avalanche of communities voting to opt out of SB 152 in fall and spring referendums sent a clear and persistent message to the state lagislature: the law is outdated and unwelcome. Rather than force local governments to spend public funds on an election burlesque to satisfy the powerful cable and DSL providers, state elected officials need to respond to constituent priorities.

They can start by restoring local authority to all of Colorado. This is a bipartisan issue with strong support on both sides. In Dolores County 76 percent of voters supported Donald Trump and in Boulder County 71 percent of voters supported Hillary Clinton - both counties strongly supported reclaiming local telecommunications authority. The state legislature can repeal SB 152 so no other communities need to waste time and money on a vote to reclaim local control when they already know the outcome.

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Counties (numbers in parens correspond to position on map)

(1) Dolores County 78% (2) El Paso County 66% (3) Garfield County 73%
(4) Larimer County 72% (5) Montrose County 71% (6) Montezuma County 70%
(7) Teller County 56%

Municipalities

Arvada 72% Aspen 91% Basalt 91%
Black Hawk 97% Breckenridge 89% Carbondale 86%
Cripple Creek 61% Dolores 86% Golden 77%
Green Mountain Falls 70% Hudson 81% Lafayette 81%
New Castle 78% Palisade 78% Parachute 78%
Silt 66% Superior 90% Victor 66%
Woodland Park 55%

San Francisco Proposal Aims at Giving Multi-Tenants Access Choice of ISPs

If San Francisco Board of Supervisor Mark Farrell gets his way, tenants in multiple-occupancy buildings will have a greater opportunity to choose their Internet Service Providers. 

In October, Farrell introduced a proposed ordinance that would require owners of multi-tenant residential and commercial properties to give building access to all state-licensed ISPs. 

Choice Effectively Denied 

Farrell’s proposal comes amidst reports of tenants denied access to ISPs of their choice.

According to a legislative digest of the proposed ordinance, property owners are not legally allowed to force tenants to sign up with one provider, but by limiting access their building to install fiber or antennas, they prevent their renters from choosing the provider they want:

"[M]any occupants of residential and commercial multiple occupancy buildings are unable to choose between service providers because their buildings property owners allow only one provider to install the facilities and equipment necessary to provide services to occupants..."

The San Francisco Chronicle reports: 

“The reality in San Francisco is that tens of thousands of residents have been denied access to different Internet service providers,” Farrell said. “I fundamentally believe competition is a good thing that will ultimately drive prices down and improve Internet access across all of San Francisco.”  

Charles Barr, founder of up and coming fixed wireless provider Webpass, said owners block their access to approximately 400 large apartment buildings in the city. Google Fiber recently acquired Webpass.

The Proposed Ordinance  

Farrell’s proposed ordinance would guarantee:

[t]he “right of occupants of residential multiple dwelling units and commercial office buildings (“multiple occupancy buildings”) to choose among providers of communications services by prohibiting property owners from either: (i) interfering with the choice of communications services providers by occupants; and/or (ii) denying communications services providers access to wiring within the building.” 

The proposal addresses the fact that state and federal laws prohibit providers from entering into exclusive agreements with property owners, but no similar laws directly prevent property owners from such agreements. To resolve the issue and promote competition, this ordinance makes use of the city and county of San Francisco police powers so tenants can more easily subscribe to providers of their choice.

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Besides requiring that all licensed ISPs have access to offer their service in multi-tenant properties, the proposed ordinance would require “communications services providers to pay property owners just and reasonable compensation for access to their properties” and spells out when a property owner would be justified to refuse an ISP’s access request.  

Teeth In The Ordinance 

The proposed ordinance has some teeth behind it.  Disagreements about what is “just and reasonable” compensation could be resolved by the parties in court and property owners who wrongfully refuse access may be fined up to $500 a day. The proposal also calls for indemnifying, or reimbursing, property owners for damage to their property. 

Industry housing trade groups are opposing Farrell’s ordinance proposal while residents like Kevin Hsiung want the access to sign up with an ISP, such as Webpass, of their choice. This past April, Christopher talked with the Webpass'  top brass to learn about the challenges facing their rising ISP in San Francisco. Check out episode #197 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for that conversation. 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors sent Farrell’s proposal to its Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee for review and recommendation by Nov. 17.

Radio Time With Blake Mobley From Rio Blanco County, Colorado

Rio Blanco County, Colorado, is moving along nicely with its Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) infrastructure investment. Readers will recall that two years ago, voters in the mostly rural county in the northwest corner of the state reclaimed local authority and soon after the community commenced plans to improve connectivity.

In a recent interview of KDNK’s Geekspeak, Rio Blanco County’s IT Director Blake Mobley described details of the project as it moves forward. He also describes how people in the county are hungry for better Internet access. The guys touch on local control and how several other communities in Colorado are voting on the right to make their own telecommunications decisions this election season. From the show website:

On this year’s ballot, voters in Carbondale, Silt, Parachute and Garfield County will decide whether or not to opt out of restrictions on local government control over high speed Internet. Blake Mobley is IT Director for Rio Blanco County. Blake talks with Matt McBrayer and Gavin Dahl about Rio Blanco’s own ballot initiative, and the county’s decision to invest in infrastructure that is now delivering gigabit fiber to homes and businesses in Rangely and Meeker.

Christopher also interviewed Blake back in 2015 for episode #158 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Trust In Government: Strongest Close To Home

We have recently covered state laws preempting local control, especially in North Carolina and Tennessee. State governments are supposed to be “laboratories of democracy” and municipalities are sub-parts of the state. Preemption is ostensibly to prevent problems, but instead these state laws limit local governments’ solutions for ensuring better connectivity.

At the same time, people trust their local government more than their state government to handle problems. That’s the latest finding from Gallup’s most recent Governance Poll, and that makes sense for all of us following community networks.

It's no surprise that trust starts with local community leaders. We have spoken to a number of public officials that acknowledge that when you know your elected official - perhaps live down the street from them or run into them at the grocery store - it's much easier to know that they share your hopes for the community.

Polls, Trends, and Republicans

Gallup’s September 7th-11th Governance Poll found that 71 percent trust their local government to handle problems, but only 62 percent say the same about their state government. This continues a fifteen-year trend of people putting their faith in local government more than in state government.

Seventy-five percent of Republicans stated that they have a "great deal/fair amount" of trust in local government. (Compare to only 71 percent of Independents and 66 percent of Democrats.)  This corresponds with what we found in January 2015 while analyzing our data. Most citywide, residential, municipal networks are built in conservative cities. They trust local governments to solve connectivity problems when the big providers can't or won't deliver.

Municipal network voting patterns

Image of the graph on trust in local and state governments from Gallup

Local Authority "A-Number One" Priority For Congress, Says Wheeler

“A-number one importance.”

On September 15th, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee gathered to discuss FCC oversight and telecommunications issues. Among those issues, the Committee discussed municipal networks.

Senator Cory Booker (D - NJ) asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to provide his thoughts on how important it is that Congress takes action. The matter he put before Wheeler was the prospect that Congress act to allow local communities to have local authority on issues relating to Internet infrastructure and advanced telecommunications capabilities. How important is it?

Wheeler’s answer: “A-number one importance.”

Wilson, Pinetops, And A Harmful State Law

Booker, who introduced a bill in 2015 to restore local authority, brought up the subject of Wilson, North Carolina, and nearby Pinetops. When the FCC rolled back restrictive state laws in 2015, Wilson’s electric utility finally had the legal authority to help their neighbors so began offering high-quality Internet access through it’s municipal Internet service, Greenlight. Earlier this summer, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the state, which challenged the FCC decision. As a result, Wilson must cut off service to Pinetops or risk losing the legal ability to serve anyone. The FCC has announced that it will not pursue further review of the decision and will focus its resources on other areas. 

Booker described the situation in Pinetops as “disturbing,” but went on to praise Wilson for investing to solve the need in the region and pointing out how local businesses, including those in Pinetops, came to depend on those investments. He went on to say he was “disappointed, if not angered” by the Court of Appeal’s decision.  

Watch a clip of the hearing:

For Pinetops and other rural communities where big cable and DSL companies refuse to bring the connections they need, the North Carolina General Assembly has betrayed them. Rather than give local communities the tool they need to move into the 21st century, the men and women of the state Capitol would rather bank on heavy campaign donations from the industry heavy hitters. These are the same entities that pushed to pass state laws that prevent local communities from investing in their own futures. 

An Enlightened FCC

Wheeler has advocated for local authority for some time now, a significant shift from past FCC Chairmen, who continued to push the antiquated notion that large private sector providers would be our saviors. In his August 10th statement on the Court of Appeals Order reversing the FCC decision, Wheeler stood with Pinetops and other rural communities who want their state legislators to stand down:

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice. Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

Tom Wheeler, Cory Booker, and an increasing number of elected officials are now seeing the benefits of publicly owned Internet networks, thanks to a growing momentum of local community leaders, business owners, and advocates.

Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators.

E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation.

An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Press Release: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

Minneapolis, MN - The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided today to dismiss the FCC's February 2015 decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina. Tennessee and North Carolina had both restricted local authority to build competitive networks.

"We're disappointed that the FCC's efforts to ensure local Internet choice have been struck down," says Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "We thank the FCC for working so hard to fight for local authority and we hope that states themselves will recognize the folly of defending big cable and telephone monopolies and remove these barriers to local investment. Communities desperately need these connections and must be able to decide for themselves how to ensure residents and businesses have high quality Internet access."

ILSR and Next Century Cities filed an Amicus brief in support of the FCC's position. View the Court's Opinion here.

Contact:

Rebecca Toews

rtoews@ILSR.org

612-808-0689

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC In Disappointing Ruling

Disappointing news from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals today as the Court chooses to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 preemption order that peeled back restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. We have the opinion for you to download and review. You can also view the decision at the Sixth Circuit's website.

We consider the Sixth Circuit’s decision disappointing, incorrect, and we hope the FCC and the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson appeal this decision. Local connectivity and telecommunications should be determined by the people who will be affected by their own decisions, not by officials who are distant, unaware of local matters, and lobbied by rich corporate Internet Service Providers with an interest in limiting competition.

Anti-Monopoly, Pro-Internet Access Groups React

In their statement, Next Century Cities, who joined us in filing an Amicus Brief, said, "Today’s court ruling is a setback in the fight to ensure access to next-generation broadband for more Americans, and Next Century Cities is disappointed by this decision."

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) responded by pointing out that, while the effort to restore local authority has stalled, the FCC's action has focused new attention on the benefits of local publicly owned networks:

“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the fact that these laws were hurting communities in Tennessee and North Carolina. They were written by telecom industry lobbyists to protect incumbents like AT&T and Comcast from competition. Similar laws exist in other states, and they all need to go. State legislatures should repeal these laws and replace them with ones that promote competition and consumer choice.

Although the FCC lost this particular case, the agency’s efforts put a spotlight on these pernicious laws and gave momentum to repeal efforts in statehouses across the country. The case also highlighted the success of locally grown networks, which are typically faster and more affordable than anything offered by private industry. Every community should have the ability to make smart investments in this type of infrastructure.”

Baller, Stokes & Lide, the lead counsel to EPB and Wilson, pointed out that this is only one battle in a war for restoring the rights of communities to pursue their own Internet infrastructure decisions:

“This is a very disappointing decision, but support for local Internet choice is growing rapidly across America, and the fight to preserve, protect, and advance community decision-making will go on,” said Jim Baller. 

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and Common Cause also released statements that expressed deep disappointment and a resolve to press on to restore local authority. Common Cause Special Advisor Michael Copps, himself a former FCC Commissioner, stated:

"This decision does not benefit our broadband nation. Nor is it a good reading of the law. But if the FCC cannot set aside these bad laws, then the people must. We will redouble our state-by-state efforts to repeal these odious policies.”

FCC Commissioners Also React

Read their statements about the decision that reversed the Commission's action:

To learn more about the decision, check out our prior coverage:

If you really want to understand this issue well, we recommend Harold Feld's discussion of it on the Wetmachine group blog.

More to come. We will comment further as we dig into the Opinion...

TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers

The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.

"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"

The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses. 

From page 13 of the report:

The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment. 

In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.

The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.

The report goes on to recommend other policies, including dig-once, smart conduit rules, and one-touch make ready. Some of these policies have been challenged in other states by the big incumbents, such as the AT&T fight in Louisville against one-touch make ready. It’s no secret that Governor Bill Haslam has been content to let these same corporate gigantaurs effectively run the show in his state for some time now. 

Business Critical

Beyond recommendations, findings from the study were also revealing. The press release from the TNECD stated that the study shows fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is especially important to Tennessee’s businesses:

Businesses participating in the assessment reported broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues. In addition, 34 percent of businesses classified broadband as essential to selecting their location, and 56 percent noted that it was essential to remain in their location. Sixteen percent of economic development agencies reported that businesses frequently chose not to locate in an area due to insufficient broadband. (emphasis ours)

Both business and residential participants cited reliability as the most important factor to them when analyzing their connectivity. Businesses also considered upload speed critical to their use of the Internet.

Urban vs Rural

While the survey determined that 13 percent of people in the state don’t have access to 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, the “vast majority” were rural folks. According to the survey, 98 percent of urban participants DO have access. Those would include people who live in places such as Chattanooga, Pulaski, and Clarksville - all towns with municipal networks.

The survey found a correlation between access to the Internet and a number of factors, four of which were the most prevalent:

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  • The economic status of the community 
  • Number of ISPs (level of competition)
  • Type of connection
  • Population density 

Removing state regulatory barriers would allow a number of these rural areas to partner with municipalities that have already invested in Internet infrastructure. Nowhere else is this situation more apparent than in Bradley County. Cleveland Utilities (CU), the electric, water, and sewer provider in the county would like to partner with nearby Chattanooga EPB Fiber Optics to bring fast affordable, reliable connectivity to customers but state law forbids it. Bradley County and a number of other rural communities have appealed to state lawmakers because it is a matter of economic urgency and educational necessity for their children. They are still waiting.

Bills to eliminate the state barriers have been introduced but while the number of State Legislators supporting them has increased, the movement does not have the force to restore local authority...yet.

Break Down The Barriers 

Haslam referred to his administration’s report as “a starting point” and TNED Commissioner Randy Boyd cautioned that, “Not every option included in the report may be the answer for Tennessee, nor is there one simple solution.” 

It must be hard to hold the line as expert opinion and evidence chip away at the flawed logic behind Tennessee's state barriers. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the laws do not benefit the people of Tennessee; they are in place strictly for the big cable companies and telcos that operate there.

For the full report, visit the TNECD website.

Video: Break the Chains, Build Local Power

Since our founding in 1974, we have worked to rewrite the rules and empower communities to choose their own future. Across several vital economic sectors, we help break the corporate stranglehold that extracts wealth from local economies and undermines democracy.

We give communities the tools to build a strong local economy themselves. From banking to energy, healthy soils to community-owned Internet networks, time and again we have shown that when we level the playing field for individuals and businesses, we improve our economy and the quality of life for all citizens.

Support our work to help communities down the path to local self-reliance. This video illustrates our work, and explains how all of our unique and distinct initiatives, together, build a holistic philosophy of local self-reliance.

Please share it and let others know that we’re fighting for communities to take charge of their whole economy. If you love it, we invite you to make a contribution to our mission of locally-driven economies, because beating back big corporations (or producing awesome animations) isn’t cheap. :)