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PSN 2012 Broadband Session Roundup: Groundswell of Support for Key Infrastructure as ALEC Pushes Deregulation

(With 2012 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the third in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states.)

A recent report by McKinsey & Co. highlighted the importance of the Internet worldwide, concluding that, "in two decades, the Internet has changed from a network for researchers and geeks to a day-to-day reality for billions of people." During recent electrical outages in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west, local philanthropic and government cooling stations were offering emergency charging stations to go along with temporary shelters for displaced residents. Broadband has become essential, not optional — critical to the jobs, health, and welfare of millions of Americans.

State legislatures around the country were focused on telecommunications infrastructure during 2012, although many bills this year seemed to be born of the rush to deregulate from last decade, seemingly unconcerned about the possibility that we could find ourselves without recourse when the technology goes down or fails to ensure that all people have access.

This year, Progressive States Network has focused on two major areas of broadband legislation. The first has been community broadband, which ensures that local governments and non-profits can create their own broadband infrastructure when needed. The second has been the wave of right-wing inspired deregulation bills that would divide our country into haves and have-nots by eliminating the tools states use to ensure that small businesses, the labor force, and individuals have access to new technology. Both are, unfortunately, connected by strong efforts on the part of the ultra-conservative, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Community Broadband: Steps Forward, Steps Back

Community broadband is an excellent solution for communities where local leaders recognize that they are not receiving the technology infrastructure they need. The option to create a public broadband network, just like the public water and electric networks of previous generations, can spur economic development where it is needed most. As detailed by the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Project, many local communities are successfully developing these initiatives, yet many states still have laws on the books which limit municipal options.

Several very bad bills were blocked or turned back this year. A key victory occurred in Georgia, where SB 313, which proposed significant procedural burdens on local communities that seek to offer public broadband, was set aside in favor of SR 994, creating a broadband availability study committee. As the Georgia Municipal Association and an array of high tech companies pointed out, SB313 would have reduced the competitiveness of Georgia’s local communities. In addition, another terrible bill — one of the worst in the nation, Minnesota's HF 2695, which would outright prohibit community broadband networks — never made it out of committee.

On the other hand, several good bills didn't make it through the legislative process either. In Washington, Representative John McCoy’s HB 1711 was unable to clear committee in time for full consideration in this legislative session. Also stalled out were promising companion bills in Wisconsin, AB 473/SB 375, which had strong bipartisan backing in advancing through their respective committees and would have delayed by one year last session’s legislation requiring public schools, universities and libraries to separate from WiscNet, a non-profit cooperative offering advanced broadband access to public entities.

Community broadband suffered an out-and-out defeat in South Carolina. Despite a high-profile exposé in The New Republic outlining the close connections between ALEC and H 3508, the legislature cleared the bill at the end of June by overwhelming majorities.

In an interview with Progressive States Network discussing this year and looking ahead to next year, ISLR expert Christopher Mitchell forecasted difficult battles in several places where we saw victories this year, such as Georgia and Minnesota, as well as Florida, which might complete the raft of destructive bills limiting broadband deployment in the southeastern US, adding that legislators looking to promote deployment and innovation should look to Iowa's model. Mitchell was also pleased to see the groundswell supporting several victories this year. "People are beginning to wonder about state legislatures that only take action blocking broadband deployment, rather than spurring it on,” he said. “Legislators who cannot point to solutions are going to look foolish."

ALEC and the Drive to Deregulate

Two types of deregulatory bills have worked their way through the states in 2012 sessions. The first category leaves residents without access to traditional telephone service, and the second would eliminate any state authority to monitor or safeguard new technologies. These proposals, if adopted, would deprive states of any power to ensure reliable, competitive, and affordable services that serve all state residents — from small businesses to those on the other side of the digital divide.

Traditional telephone service — the phone connected to copper wires on the wall in your home — has always been guaranteed for all. Anyone, including rural residents and low-income families, can call the phone company and get a phone. But this is no longer the case in states that have been eliminating their so-called "carrier of last resort" regulations. Without these rules, someday you might move to a new house, and the phone company could tell you they do not offer telephone service to your address. The folks most likely to lose service — older people and people in expensive-to-serve rural areas — are also the most likely not to have any alternatives, such as mobile phone service or high speed Internet.

As word spread about the dangers of these bills, a number of them were turned back. Advocates in Kentucky led a high-profile fight and successfully stopped their bill. Kentucky saw a great model of collaboration between interests representing elderly, rural, and other residents. Another high-profile bill was Ohio's SB 271, which passed the Senate but had not passed the House as of early August. Labor joined in fighting bills in places like Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, where bills were introduced but did not move. Unfortunately, new laws were passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Indiana, which added to a large number of deregulatory measures adopted in prior legislative sessions.

A number of bills based on a model ALEC bill would have the same impact as the old-technology oriented bills even though they focus on deregulating Internet-enabled services. The reason? Even though they focus on services that use "internet protocol" (IP), in reality almost every communications service you can imagine uses IP — including emergency services, video services, and even telephone service. These bills are a sweeping preemptive strike against consumers and small businesses because they render states powerless with respect to a technology that virtually everyone relies on today.

The most prominent bill in this group this session was SB 1161 in California, which, despite serious opposition from California citizens and experts, had been moving steadily ahead but is now on hold pending further consideration as of August. Fortunately, the growing coalition of sectors opposing these bills produced a number of victories this session. Bills in Connecticut and Colorado have stalled out. In New York, a determined coalition including Communications Workers of America and AARP celebrated Governor Cuomo's decision not to prohibit state agencies from assisting consumers with broadband services. In a welcome contrast, West Virginia saw a bill introduced which would have explicitly granted authority over high speed broadband Internet services.

2012 did also see setbacks to economic security, with Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Utah all adopting ALEC-inspired bills prohibiting states from taking action with regard to Internet Protocol services. There was also a modest deregulatory bill in Maine this year, which preserved the state's authority over IP providers who are carriers of last resort (although it lifted any state authority over other carriers). Last year, Maine took a useful step and asked its state utility commission to study the issue, a model which has promise for others who want to take action but not tie the hands of state agencies safeguarding the public.

Sweeping Reform Proposed in Colorado

No session review would be complete without looking in detail at SB 157 in Colorado. This legislation, clocking in at 69 pages, attempted to address a range of issues — everything from universal service to the rates families pay to contact loved ones in prison. The bill combined many of the deregulatory trends of 2012, along with an attempt to move universal service funding from its traditional main recipient in Colorado (CenturyLink) toward other carriers. Like the ALEC-inspired bills in other states, SB 157 proposed stripping state oversight of all IP services as well as permitting carriers to stop offering basic local telephone service with minimal oversight. Among the successful opponents of the bill were local governments in Colorado, in particular the Southwest Council of Governments (SWCOG).

Erik Cecil, the SWCOG's counsel, explained to Progressive States Network that part of their successful advocacy included pointing to community broadband as a necessary component of any legislation that would leave many communities without reliable broadband and without recourse. As a counterpoint, Colorado's SB 129 would have taken a more reasonable step and directed the utility commission to study the availability of and competition in broadband service in rural areas. Given the high profile of these issues in 2012, it would be surprising if Colorado did not take up broadband issues again next session.

Broadband: Critical to State Economic Security

President Obama has identified an advanced "information technology ecosystem" as a critical component of his innovation agenda and as being essential for economic security for the United States. Legislative sessions on broadband this year demonstrate that many in the states understand its importance and its potential.

The states most likely to see increases in broadband deployment and adoption in the coming years — and thus increases in jobs and the numbers of skilled people to fill those jobs — are the states that are proactive in ensuring their residents can benefit from this critical and necessary infrastructure.

Full Resources from this Article

PSN 2012 Broadband Session Roundup:

Institute for Local Self-Reliance - National Community Broadband Map
Institute for Local Self-Reliance - Publicly Owned Broadband Networks
National Regulatory Research Institute - The Year in Review: The Status of Telecommunications Deregulation in 2012
National Telecommunications and Information Agency - Exploring the Digital Nation - Computer and Internet Use at Home (2011)
National Telecommunications and Information Agency - Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), Thirteenth Quarterly Program Status Report (July 2012)
National Telecommunications and Information Agency - All BTOP reports Maine Public Utility Commission - Plan to Reform Telecommunications (2011)

 

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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