Advocates who say local governments and utility cooperatives should have more freedom to provide broadband in underserved areas scored two legislative victories this spring.
In Missouri, a bill that would have restricted the ability of cities, counties, or other public entities to run broadband networks was defeated. In Tennessee, the state passed a bill that expands the ability of electric cooperatives to get into the broadband business.
Missouri muni broadband dodges a bullet – again
In Missouri, municipal broadband advocates quietly defeated Senate Bill 186, which would have placed restrictions on local governments’ abilities to run broadband networks to serve their residents.
The bill passed out of the Senate Local Government and Elections committee in February by a vote of 6-1, said Ewell Lawson, a vice president with the Missouri Public Utility Alliance. “However, the committee chairman did not report the bill to the Senate floor for consideration,” a move which slowed the bill significantly, he said.
Unlike battles occurring in Virginia and Tennessee between activists and large communication companies, the struggle in Missouri didn’t seem to attract a lot of attention. In fact, there seemed to be less local press coverage of groups attacking the bill this year compared with previous years, when similar proposals have been considered.
The bill was supported by incumbents, the telecommunications companies that held regional monopolies on land-line service before the industry was deregulated.
The bill got a second chance when incumbent allies in the State Assembly attached the language of the Senate bill to an unrelated bill late in the session. That bill was re-titled twice, further confusing efforts to track it. Opposition successfully ran out the clock on Friday, when the Legislature adjourned.
Community broadband supporters are optimistic that Missouri’s governor inadvertently took the wind out of the sails of muni-network opponents for 2018. In April, Governor Eric Greitens announced that the state raised $45 million for broadband infrastructure, in large part thanks to an FCC E-Rate grant, part of the Universal Service Fund, which tries to make telecommunications services more affordable in hard-to-reach markets.
Lawson said he thinks connecting municipally provided broadband more closely to the needs of rural communities will have political benefits.
“I do believe that his greater focus on rural broadband will make it more difficult to enact anti-muni legislation next year,” Lawson said.
Columbia, Centralia, and other Missouri cities already have plans in the works to build or expand city-owned networks. If those plans go through, they could create another barrier for anti-muni network legislation in the future. Other states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania that have enacted public-network restrictions have had to exempt public networks that were planned or built.
The bill would not have affected electric or telephone co-ops, but some Missouri co-ops worried that bills restricting muni-networks would lead to restrictions on broadband activities of cooperatives down the line.
With the latest threats overcome, Missouri residents expect co-op broadband efforts to continue to expand. Currently, Co Mo Electric Cooperative, Ralls County Electric, and Sho-Me Power Electric Co-Op are working on networks.
Lawson said members of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance are pleased with the defeat of the bill.
“Again, we beat efforts to limit local communities in rural Missouri from developing broadband networks or partnering with carriers to expand customer choices,” Lawson said. “State policies should not restrict options for broadband deployment or local government efforts to enhance service and competition for broadband.”
Tennessee cooperatives get more flexibility
In Tennessee, at the end of April, Governor Bill Haslam removed the legislative handcuffs that restrict co-ops from providing broadband service in the Volunteer State.
“Without this bill, there was no hope for broadband in many rural communities in this state,” said Mike Knotts, a vice president of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and a lead negotiator on the bill. “This is a huge first step in the right direction, and the governor should be commended for his efforts.”
However, many community broadband supporters consider the law a compromise rather than an outright victory. Co-ops can build networks and offer broadband services to members, but they can only do so in the areas where co-ops provide electric or telephone services. Municipal utilities are still restricted to their political boundaries, but that will be allowed to sell broadband on a wholesale basis to co-ops outside that footprint.
Tennessee has 22 co-ops that cover 71 percent of the state’s land area. At the national level, electric cooperatives serve over 70% of the United States’ land areas.
“I live in the southern end of Bradley County (Tennessee) and am served by Volunteer Electric Coop (VEC),” said Rebecca Levings, a constituent advocate. “Under the new law, VEC could partner with EPB (Chattanooga’s utility) to provide broadband in our area even though EPB is prohibited from providing it directly to us.
The electric co-op would have to build its own infrastructure in their service area and provide customer support services. “EPB could only sell them fiber wholesale,” Levings said.
Cooperatives are in a good position to build out networks, said Knotts with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.
“Many co-ops are already building fiber into their operations to facilitate real-time communication between their substation operation, the main office and even customers, Knotts said. “Motivated by increasing member demand, co-ops are realizing they can expand this fiber infrastructure to address the problem that many of their rural areas are in danger of vanishing without broadband.”
Some national observers of broadband and broadband policies praise the law’s intent in Tennessee but question how much it addresses the root problem.
“Tennessee’s state legislators are more afraid of AT&T lobbyists and rural frustration at having poor Internet service,” says Christopher Mitchell. “As long as that is true, the state can only nibble at the problem.”
Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of the recently published report “The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.”