Municipal Broadband Untouched. Session is Over. Thank you!

NC House Chamber

NC House Chamber- Courtesy NC General Assembly

Thanks to you and your participation in the process, lawmakers saw that protecting decades-old monopolies isn’t the slam dunk the cable company had made it out to be. The NC General Assembly wrapped up the year early Sunday morning without taking action on municipal broadband. This year was the biggest battle friends of community broadband had faced. Bottom line, municipal broadband, including Wilson’s Greenlight, will continue to improve NC broadband speeds and provide critical infrastructure for our citizens. Thank you!

Here’s a note from Catharine Rice of SEATOA who stayed up all night Saturday to watch S1209 wrap up. This may sound like a lot of government-speak, but roughly transalated, there was a lot of zigging and zagging on broadband right up until the end.

From Catharine:

Saturday morning, July 11, at 5 a.m., the NC House of Representatives killed Senator Hoyle’s (D-Gaston) attempt  to force a moratorium on municipalities seeking to provide their communities broadband service. This was the industry’s 3rd (actually 4th) attempt to stop municipalities from providing superior bbnd infrastructure to the communities.

The bill died on Saturday after a one-two punch. First, the House Ways & Means Committee had refused to hear S1209 since June 8, under the hands of Committee Chair-Rep. Faison (D-Orange, Caswell), when it crossed from the Senate to the House. Then late Friday evening, the House itself added an amendment to its Study Authorization Bill (SB900) permitting, but not requiring, the Revenue Laws Study Committee to study the laws and circumstances surrounding municipalities providing broadband service to their communities, but dropping all other terms of S1209, mainly  the moratorium. The Senate concurred with House bill 900 unanimously later in the evening (9:49pm) and it was enrolled for review and signature by the Governor. (See Sections 7.5 (a) and (b) here)

Ten minutes later, Sen. Clodfelter introduced H455, a bill whose effect would have changed the approach of the House’s version of the municipal bbnd study. With H455, Senator Clodfelter gutted a House kidney awareness bill, and poured into it the “study” portion of S1209 (Hoyle’s Anti-Muni broadband bill), changing the House version by setting a date certain when the study (and recommended legislation) would have to be completed (March 2011), and increasing the number of seats on the subcommittee from 12 to 14, adding assigned seats for telephone coops and the NC County. The House version did not mandate a study, but made it optional, did not specifically authorize the committee to recommend legislation, and set the seats for the subcommittee at 12, naming 8 with an additional four unassigned seats. Clodfelter’s H455 contained two other sections, one addressing a fluke in sales tax refunds for MI-Connection, the Mooresville-Davidson muni bbnd system.

Around 2:45 Saturday morning, on Rep. Paul Luebke’s (D-Durham) motion, the House denied concurrence with the Senate on H455 (96 to deny, 1 to allow). At 3:45 a.m., the House approved a Senate/House conference committee report for the purpose of keeping only one section of H455, (effectively deleting H455′s changes to the House study version of S1209). H455 (here) now provides a state sales tax refund status for Davidson and Mooresville’s MI-CONNECTION system, status the two towns would have if individually providing cable service, but from which they were disqualified by having  joined together to provide broadband cable  service.  On a vote of 91 to 6, the House approved the Senate/House conference report. At 4:55 a.m. the Senate concurred with that report and it was enrolled for the Governor’s attention.

Dismal speeds from most providers still the norm in the US

Yahoo! News has a good story today about Internet access speeds, and the news is no surprise. In spite of millions of dollars of slick advertising and cartoon characters, we’re still slow in this country. This line sums it up best. “When it comes to Internet performance, in the aggregate, none of us are exactly living it up. The fastest throughput in America clocks in, on average, at a measly 1.22Mbps.”

These figures include the cable giants who are charging you big bucks for “blazing” speeds and such.

Greenlight’s slowest residential speed is 10Mbps upload and download. Why is Greenlight different? The network is all fiber optics, plus we serve a smaller area. Most of the cable companies, including the one with the most customers in NC, rely on old copper lines that simply can’t carry the same speeds as fiber optic networks. PC Mag recently said, “Those results are clear: fiber-to-the-home is the way to go nationwide…”

Wilson invested in its own network, and other NC cities and towns deserve the same chance. If they’re forced to wait on the outdated cable and telecom companies, the US will continue to lag behind other developed countries.

Paper: Muni Broadband Bill Quietly Tucked Into Another Bill

Okay, I know there’s a lot to keep up with in this ongoing battle, but there’s a new development you need to know about. According to the Greensboro News and Record’s Mark Binker, the municipal broadband moratorium from senate bill 1209 has been moved to another bill, house bill 1840; apparently to get around a committee that the sponsor, Sen. David Hoyle (D-Gaston), considered unfriendly.

Here’s today’s story, courtesy of the News and Record:

Muni broadband moratorium put in another bill

For those watching the municipal broadband moratorium bill (background from me here and from the N+O here) you have another bill to keep track of.

The Senate Rules Committee attached the broadband study and moratorium as constructed in S 1209 and dumped it into H 1840, which has to do with extending E-NC authority.

I asked Sen. David Hoyle, chairman of the Rules Committee, why he was sending over a bill that has already passed the Senate.

“I’m sending it over with something the House likes,” Hoyle said. “I can’t get a committee hearing on the broadband.”

Rep. Bill Faison, the House committee chairman holding onto the bill, attended Senate Rules to watch the proceedings but did not comment to the committee.

This is the legislative version of trading paint. If the House fails to concur on H 1840, the measure will be sent to a conference committee. At that point, if no senator signs off on a conference report, the bill goes nowhere. So Hoyle can say, give me a hearing on the muni broadband bill or I lock up you E-NC bill.

“All I’m asking for is a hearing, an up or down vote,” he said. “It’s not fair for someone just to hold my bill and not hear it.”

That collective coffee spit you just heard was Senate Republicans thinking to themselves about all the bills they can’t get heard in their own chamber.

Clarifications to News and Observer Article About NC Broadband Bill

The News and Observer published an article this week about the broadband fight in NC. While the reporter did his best to cover a big issue in a relatively small amount of space, some important points were left out.

First, you should know two things:

  • Before building our fiber optic network, Wilson asked the cable company to upgrade its network or to partner with us to build something better. They turned us down.
  • Broadband from the City of Wilson is much, much faster than cable modems. Local homes can get up to 100 Mbps upload and download.

The article is below in its entirety. My comments and clarifications are in blue italics. The copy is owned and copyrighted by the News and Observer of Raleigh. Now, on to the article…

Cable TV fights municipal broadband

BY JOHN MURAWSKI – Staff Writer

Alarmed by the prospect of competing for customers against local governments, the cable TV industry is pushing for a state law to prevent North Carolina cities from offering Internet and cable systems to their residents.

The industry, led by Time Warner Cable, wants to protect itself from what it calls unfair competition. The industry’s concerns are gaining urgency as some two dozen towns in the state are either planning or exploring their own telecommunications and television service for residents and businesses.

A proposed moratorium on municipal broadband has sailed through the state Senate and is now awaiting debate in the House of Representatives. But some lawmakers in the House are intent on derailing any proposal that would delay the development of local broadband networks. They say the future of the state depends on unfettered broadband access.

The bill is pending in the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Bill Faison, sees the moratorium as an attempt to protect the powerful cable monopoly. Faison, a Democrat who represents Orange and Caswell counties, is meeting Wednesday with representatives of the telecommunications industry and local government leaders to discuss options.

“I decide what gets put on the agenda,” Faison said. “It’s unlikely that any bill with a moratorium in it has a chance of getting through the House.”

Local growth

Virtually unheard of just a few years ago, a high-speed Internet and cable TV service offered by your local government is becoming a reality for some.

The City of Wilson’s $28 million Greenlight service is the prototype of municipal broadband in this state, launched just two years ago and now claiming about 4,800 customers. The City of Salisbury will be next with its $30 million Fibrant service, scheduled to be offered later this year. Meanwhile, Fayetteville is set to study its own version of municipal broadband this summer and could decide this year whether to proceed.

Additionally, the towns of Davidson and Mooresville recently bought telecom assets from Adelphia Communications during bankruptcy proceedings, and now both provide municipal broadband. Their jointly owned system has been hobbled by revenue shortfalls as the towns seek to convince more citizens to subscribe.

City officials say municipal telecom service is an economic development strategy that will increase competition and provide high-speed Internet access to those who lack any kind of broadband. They point out that local governments traditionally provide public services – water, sewer, electric, natural gas, transportation – where the options are nonexistent or inadequate.

“We’re running this as a public utility,” said Doug Paris, assistant to the city manager in Salisbury. “It’s really not a luxury anymore – it’s a necessity.”

Potential dangers

Opponents warn that towns run a major risk of defaulting when competing against Wall Street-backed industries. In addition to contending against Time Warner Cable, the state’s dominant cable provider with 1.7 million customers, government broadband networks would also have to compete against satellite services, AT&T’s U-verse where it’s offered, and the expected spread of Internet-streaming services.

Sen. David Hoyle, a Democrat from Gaston County, says he heard similar arguments from government officials decades ago when city halls were eager to get in on the business of selling electricity. Several dozen North Carolina towns, including Wilson, joined to buy a share in utility-owned power plants, and now their residents pay some of the highest power bills in the state.

Wilson is one of 32 cities in the NC Eastern Municipal Power Agency (NCEMPA) and yes, our residential electrical costs are higher now, but they are temporary. We are paying down debt from the early 80s after the 32 cities and towns helped CP&L (now Progress Energy) finish construction at Shearron Harris Nuclear Power Plant. We passed the peak of that debt a few years ago. Our internal costs are actually less than the state average.

A similar proposal last year was also deferred for study by the General Assembly’s Joint Revenue Laws Committee, which led to the bill proposed by Hoyle this year.

Hoyle originally proposed restricting municipal broadband by requiring a public vote on a general obligation bond issue before a town could invest in a broadband network. Hoyle said such a vote would essentially prevent the systems from being built once citizens see the costs involved.

But the Senate preferred a year-long moratorium so the matter could be further studied by a panel to be named by the Joint Revenue Laws Committee. If municipal broadband expands, Hoyle worries that it’s just a matter of time until local towns are asking the state for bailouts.

“They’re going to have debt up the ying-yang,” Hoyle said. “It’s people getting into business they don’t know anything in the world about.”

(Okay, a freebie here. We all trust local government to put out house fires, arrest bad guys and provide our drinking water. Providing better communications services is relatively simple.)

Faison’s concern is promoting universal broadband access. It’s estimated about 10 percent of the state’s population, mostly in rural and remote areas, lacks access to high-speed Internet. Still, the networks being developed by local governments largely overlap with existing networks.

While the networks overlap, the services don’t. Wilson provides much faster broadband speeds than the cable company – up to 100 M residential. It’s apples and oranges.

The argument

About half the nation’s states restrict municipal broadband. The N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association says local governments have an unfair advantage over Time Warner or other providers because they don’t pay taxes and consequently have significantly lower operating costs.

Other conflicts can arise as well. For example, in 2007, when Wilson was developing its Greenlight service, the town tripled its rate for using municipal utility poles from $5 to $15 a year. That raised the pole fee for Time Warner Cable from $82,000 to $246,000 a year, but Time Warner is still paying the old rate while it negotiates with town officials over the issue.

Before 2007, Wilson’s pole fee had stayed the same since 1975. The attachment fee increase was not related to Greenlight. The old fee schedule was outdated. By comparison, the cable company’s standard rates have doubled since 1997.

“When the regulator becomes your competitor, it’s not a good situation,” said Marcus Trathen, a lawyer for the cable lobby.

Wilson and other cities regulate only the pole attachments. The cable and telecom companies are regulated by the State of NC. The local regulation of cable services ended in 2007 after intense lobbying from the cable/telecom companies.

The moratorium provision before Faison’s committee is the result of a compromise between the N.C. League of Municipalities, the city government’s lobby, and the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association, the industry’s lobbying arm. The moratorium doesn’t apply to towns that are already planning or developing municipal broadband, towns that received federal stimulus grants for broadband deployment, or towns chosen by Google for its Fiber Project.

Restrictions on municipal broadband also are opposed by Google, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent and several other telecom companies that wrote a letter to lawmakers in May.

“North Carolina should be lowering barriers to public broadband initiatives rather than establishing new ones,” their letter says, arguing that the state would be cutting off potential federal stimulus grants.

Both sides accuse the other of putting profits before the public interest.

“It’s like, say, Barnes & Noble saying we shouldn’t have a public library system because it stops private sector investment,” said Kelli Kukura, the League’s director of governmental affairs. “The bottom line is they need to get busy working on this or get out of the way so we can serve our citizens.”

Better bandwidth is about much more than cable

GreenlightWilson is exempt from S1209, but the bill would make it much more difficult for NC cities or towns to build similar networks in the future. As we watch the bill make its way through the legislature, here are some ways that Wilson’s community owned fiber optic network is helping the people of Wilson right now.

Remote training – our firefighters can do non-physical training from their assigned stations instead of driving somewhere else. This keeps our response times among the best in NC.

Surveillance cameras – local businesses had requested cameras in public parking lots. The fiber system cut the costs of such projects by approximately 90%, making them affordable.

Smart Grid/ Smart meters – Our electric distribution system will be using the fiber for smart grid and smart meter technologies that in trials have generated substantial savings on customers electric bills.

Schools – Greenlight is currently constructing a fiber ring linking all County schools together through a network that will offer increased speeds and redundancy to eliminate down times

Hospital/Physicians offices – We are in the process of linking physicians’ offices to the hospital.  This will allow on-line transfer of medical files including large bandwidth items such as x-rays.  In the future we envision “virtual” doctor’s visits for the homebound.

Free wi-fi to our downtown district, train station, athletic complex, airport and library.

S1209 in Finance Committee Tuesday, plus a surprise from Rep. Faison

Rep. Bill Faison

Rep. Bill Faison

Been a busy couple of days on the issue of next-generation broadband in our state.

First, unless they change the date again, Senate Bill 1209 should come up in the Senate Finance Committee this Tuesday, June 1st, at 1pm in the Legislative office building; room 544.

Yes, it’s scheduled for the first day back after a three-day weekend. :)

Now stick with me, here. This gets a little complicated, but it’s good news.

Rep. Bill Faison (D-Caswell, Orange) has introduced a second bill, House Bill 2067,  that would specifically allow Caswell County to build its own broadband network.

Mr. Faison’s bill lists broadband as a public utility, and that’s important. Some lawmakers, including the cable and telecom companies, have portrayed broadband as a luxury. The Independent Weekly of Durham covered the story.

More as this develops. I hope to see you Tuesday.

Study: U.S. now 26th in global broadband speed

The newest information from Ookla shows that the US is still losing ground in the global move to faster broadband speeds.

Here’s how the US, who invented the Internet, fares against the top five countries:

1. South Korea – 34.14 Mbps (megabits per second)
2. Latvia – 24.29 Mbps
3. Moldova – 21.37 Mbps
4. Japan – 20.29 Mbps
5. Sweden – 19.87 Mpbs
—-
26. United States of America – 10.16 Mbps

Part of the reason US speeds haven’t kept up is the lack of improvements to the aging copper systems. Remember the old cable lines that were strung in front of your house 30 years ago? They were made to carry analog TV signals, but today there’s a decent chance that they’re carrying the Web to you.

The City of Wilson built its Greenlight network as a fiber to the home system. It’s faster and much more reliable than the old stuff.

Instead of concentrating on updating their own systems, the cable and telecom giants are paying lobbyists to push bills like S1209 that would stop NC cities from building better networks.

Thanks to everyone, including private corporations such as Google and Intel, who has contacted lawmakers to explain the short-sighted effects of this bill.

Monopoly-protection bill meets NC Finance Committee today at 1pm

**Update** The bill was pulled from today’s meeting, apparently to study the issue some more. Thanks to all of you who contacted your lawmakers. I’ll let you know more as it happens.

The Senate Finance committee takes up S1209 today at 1pm in room 544 of the Legislative Office Building downtown.

A couple of quick things. First, we hope you can make it to speak. If not, I encourage you to listen to it on the legislative audio feed.

Finally, if you tweet about the topic today, please use the hashtag #ncbb. We need all of you involved in this. NC is walking the opposite direction while our nation looks to improve its broadband access.

Private industry says latest monopoly-protection bill is bad for economy, NC

Google, Alcatel-Lucent, Intel and other industry representatives are asking NC lawmakers not to pass new restrictions on municipal broadband and to abandon Senate Bill 1209. They understand that city or county owned broadband is a good thing for business, not a bad thing as suggested by some of the cable and telecom giants.

The full text of their letter is below. Here’s a segment:

“We support strong, fair and open competition to ensure users can enjoy the widest range of choice and opportunities to access content online, which is the heart of economic development in an information-based global market. SB 1209 is a step in the wrong direction. North Carolina should be lowering barriers to public broadband initiatives rather than establishing new ones, so that we and other high technology companies can spread and prosper across this beautiful state”

I appreciate their willingness to take a stand on this issue.

May 21, 2010
Senator Dan Clodfelter
Chair, Senate Finance Committee
300 N. Salisbury Street, Room 408
Raleigh, NC 27603-5925

Dear Senator Clodfelter:

We, the undersigned private-sector companies and trade associations, urge you to oppose SB 1209 or any other measure that would impose significant barriers to public broadband initiatives in North Carolina. Measures such as SB 1209 would harm both the public and private sectors. It would thwart public broadband initiatives, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, and diminish quality of life in North Carolina. In particular, it would hurt the private sector in several ways: by undermining public-private partnerships; by hamstringing the private sector’s ability to sell goods and services in North Carolina; by interfering with workforce development; and by stifling creativity and innovation.

The United States continues to suffer through one of the most serious economic crises in decades. To address these concerns, Congress and the Obama Administration have made more than $7 billion available to catalyze both public and private efforts to accelerate the deployment, adoption and use of broadband infrastructure and services. The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan also admonishes states not to interfere with community broadband efforts where local officials do not believe that the private sector is acting fast enough or well enough to meet the community’s broadband needs. Consistent with these expressions of national policy, public entities across America, including North Carolina, are doing their share to bring affordable high-capacity broadband connectivity to all Americans. Enactment of direct or effective barriers to municipal broadband would not only be counterproductive, hurting both the public and private sectors, but it would also put North Carolina conspicuously at odds with national broadband policy.

We support strong, fair and open competition to ensure users can enjoy the widest range of choice and opportunities to access content online, which is the heart of economic development in an information-based global market. SB 1209 is a step in the wrong direction. North Carolina should be lowering barriers to public broadband initiatives rather than establishing new ones, so that we and other high technology companies can spread and prosper across this beautiful state. Please oppose SB 1209 and other measures that would significantly impair municipal broadband deployments or public-private partnerships in North Carolina.

Sincerely,

Alcatel-Lucent, American Public Power Association, Atlantic-Engineering, the Fiber to the Home Council, Google, Intel, Telecommunications Industry Association, and Utilities Telecom Council.
cc: Governor Beverly Perdue
Secretary of Commerce J. Keith Crisco
Rep. Hugh Holliman
Rep Joe Hackney
Senator Marc Basnight
Senate Finance Committee

Winston Salem Journal: Telecoms can’t expect people to keep waiting

The Winston Salem Journal did an excellent job covering the municipal broadband issue this week. The writers understood that the people of NC shouldn’t have to wait around for cable and telecom companies to improve their systems.

US broadband speeds simply haven’t kept up with many countries because the copper cable and telephone wires are slower than fiber optic networks. Some cities and towns, such as Wilson, have built fiber optic networks but the industry giants want to stop them. Wilson Greenlight speeds are many times faster than anything else you can buy here.

Here are a couple of segments from the editorial about senate bill 1209:

If the General Assembly were to give the telecoms what they want, they would be setting a higher standard for Internet borrowing than exists for most other government borrowing. And legislators would look hypocritical in passing such legislation because they’ve been borrowing without bond referenda for many years.

The issue here is that North Carolina’s small towns and rural areas need fast Internet service so they can attract business. With high-speed Internet, people can work from home, too, thus increasing the likelihood that small Internet-based businesses can take advantage of lower costs in rural areas. Also many people currently work from home. They can move to rural areas and stay employed by urban companies if they have a high-speed Internet connection.

Senate bill 1209 is expected in one of the committees next week. More on that as we know more.

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