(Note: With legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this week’s Dispatch is the first in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different critical policy areas across the fifty states.)
The United States lags in 16th place globally when it comes to broadband access, and according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we also rank among the countries with the highest costs for broadband subscriptions. With one third of the country remaining digitally disconnected, we clearly need to examine and allow alternative models of ownership, technology, economic development, and digital inclusion in our states.
This year, legislation introduced and enacted in statehouses across the nation demonstrated that policymakers understand now is the time to invest in broadband infrastructure in order to rebuild prosperity.
By advancing measures to create and improve existing broadband task forces, expand the build-out of needed infrastructure, support community-based broadband while countering corporate attempts to increase their own profits at the expense of communities, provide more affordable services to unserved and underserved communities, and fight back against the removal of consumer protections, state lawmakers took critical steps forward in ensuring the economic competitiveness of small businesses and the economic security of their residents.
Creating and Improving State Broadband Task Forces
Universal broadband access and adoption cannot occur without having a plan in place and an agenda that addresses each state’s own needs. An advisory body must be established to outline state goals in high-speed Internet in order to effectively deploy networks and make sure that communities use them. More than 22 states have created broadband task forces, and even those that already have them are working towards improving their composition to address various concerns of every state’s diverse community.
In 2011, Alaska’s HB 201  increased the number of duties of its task force, requiring it, among several other obligations, to determine the current level of broadband access in urban and rural areas of the state and to explore ways to encourage state and municipal agencies to expand the development and use of broadband services.
West Virginia improved the composition of its Broadband Task Force through SB 507 , which extends the term of the state’s Broadband Deployment Council to include members of the administration, unions, telecommunications providers, cable operators, manufacturers, and — notably — representatives from rural communities and higher or secondary education. The enactment of this bill fulfills the need for states to have a diversified membership in their broadband councils in order to ensure that every segment of the population is included in the development of broadband policy.
Improving Broadband Infrastructure Build-Out
As states continue to deal with the fallout of the Great Recession, expanding access to broadband is absolutely critical to creating jobs and rebuilding prosperity. Working families and small businesses alike increasingly depend on broadband in order to succeed in a global economy.
While large for-profit providers continue to ignore many communities where it is not profitable for them to operate, local entities — including municipalities, co-ops, and private non-profits — have thankfully shown leadership in building out this the critical infrastructure. And they have done so on their own, meeting their populations’ needs, and even getting ahead of large corporate broadband providers in the quality of service provided. At the same time, corporations interested in protecting their own profits at the expense of the economic health of underserved communities have backed legislation that aims to prevent community-based broadband from taking root.
State Legislation that Supports Community-Based Broadband
Hawaii’s SB 1161 /HB1342  expedites the deployment of high-speed Internet networks by exempting the construction of broadband infrastructure from certain permitting requirements and reducing the time and costs associated with requests for access to utility poles. The newly enacted law also allows public utilities and broadband providers to recover prudently incurred costs related to the planning, engineering, construction, installation, or replacement of utility poles. SB 1161/HB1342 is an overall win for all broadband providers, but particularly local entities who seek to provide these services to unserved communities.
Similarly, Vermont’s SB 78 , signed into law by the Governor this spring, gives public utilities the authority to build and own broadband networks and speeds up the application process to deploy this infrastructure. Laws that make it easier to deliver broadband services will benefit consumers by giving them more options when purchasing broadband services.
In Washington State, legislation (HB 1711 ) was introduced to allow public utilities to own networks and offer broadband services to their already existing consumer base. The legislation was introduced in an attempt to reverse current law, which limits public utility districts from providing wholesale telecommunications services. While HB 1711 did not pass, the bill serves as a model for giving more autonomy to public utilities, enabling them to provide critical broadband services — just as they provide services for electricity and water.
Tennessee’s HB 2076 / SB 1847  sought to allow municipalities, non-profits, and other local entities to utilize broadband systems in their operations and to encourage the construction of an advanced broadband system. The bill was introduced by a state legislator representing Chattanooga, a city that owns a broadband network and the first system in the country capable of offering 1 GBPS speeds. This advantage has allowed the city to support greater use of electric vehicles and increased investment in technology and new businesses, attracting employers like Volkswagen, which relocated its North American headquarters to the town in 2008.
Corporate Attempts to Deny Community-Based Broadband in the States
Policies influenced by industry lobbying have created a system where one incumbent Internet Service Provider is given virtually monopolistic control over broadband services in many communities. The results are unserved communities and limited options that make services exorbitantly expensive.
This year, those industry lobbyists have come out in full force in the Carolinas, where bills in both states — HB3508 /SB483  in South Carolina and HB129 /SB87  in North Carolina — were passed to place onerous requirements for the development of community-based broadband networks, threatening their existence and the economic vitality of the localities where they would operate. Ironically named “Level the Playing Field Bill,” these bills pile burdens on municipally owned networks that private providers are not subject to. Further, they demonstrate a direct and persistent attack on communities.South Carolina law already imposes significant restrictions and burdensome procedural and imputed-cost requirements on municipalities interested in building out broadband networks.
InArkansas, HB 2033  completely bars local governments from providing basic local exchange, voice, data, broadband, video, or wireless telecommunication services.
New Hampshire’s HB 389  would have also limited municipalities’ right to facilitate critical services like broadband. Similar to other states’ legislation, this bill placed restrictions on the new build-out of high speed Internet networks.
Affordable Access to Telecommunications Services
Having a plan to deploy broadband networks and giving our communities the authority to allow access is not enough. The adoption of broadband by all members of society is critical to truly achieving an equal playing field, providing opportunities for all, and allowing all communities to fully engage in the democratic process.
The Universal Service Fund is a program created in the 1990s at the state and federal levels that aims to achieve universal access to telecommunications services by providing affordable services to rural residents and low-income families. States have already taken action this year to expand these services.
Oregon’s HB 2192  allows the state’s Public Utility Commissions to use moneys from the Universal Service Fund to map the availability of broadband at fair and reasonable rates throughout the state. Mapping is an important tool for legislators and local planning groups seeking to evaluate the current status of their states’ Internet infrastructure.
Although it was stayed this session, Oregon’s HB 2200  demonstrates that states are already thinking about how to reform their own Universal Service Funds to allow access to more telecommunications services for working families. The bill takes a step in the right direction by adding broadband among the subsidized services, including more affordable access to wireless communications. As the bill waits to be reintroduced next year, a plan to allow all local telecommunications providers to receive USF funding would greatly increase competition throughout the state.
Colorado’s SB 2 , the Low Income Telephone Users Fund, also saved subsidy programs for low-income residents in the state. The bill was passed unanimously by the House and Senate and immediately signed by the Governor.
Removing Protections for Consumers
If curtailing basic rights to collective bargaining was not enough, conservatives in Wisconsin also attempted to reduce broadband access for schools, libraries, and university researchers this year.The proposal would have forced a not-for-profit Internet Service Provider to return $39 million in federal funds that would have wired a large part of the state. Fortunately — after protests from hundreds of Internet, community, and educational groups — the proposed amendment did not pass . The move would have accompanied a new law  that deregulates telephone services, increasing phone rates and gutting consumer protections for Wisconsin’s working families.
Effective July 1 of this year,Florida’s HB 1231  also strips away the Public Service Commission’s authority over telecommunication services, including broadband, voice over Internet Protocol, and mobile connections.
Conclusion: Broadband Critical to State Economies
The fate of many states’ uncertain economic recoveries depends on investing in 21st century infrastructure like broadband, supporting small businesses, and putting people back to work. No one disputes that technological infrastructure plays a critical role in the public’s access to needed services like education and health care and the future of state economies. As Progressive States Network has noted previously , the benefits from broadband are long-term, and as such, the facilitation of Internet services must be seen as part of any comprehensive local economic development strategy.
In 2011, Internet access is no longer a luxury. As articulated in a recent report  from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Internet is truly the “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social, political, and cultural rights. It is therefore imperative that state policymakers step up to guarantee the tools residents of their states need to prosper.
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