An ALEC-inspired, lobbyist-written anti-municipal broadband bill introduced in the Kansas state legislature - Senate Bill 304 - is threatening all broadband in the state, even from private-sector challengers to existing incumbents. Dropping in seemingly from nowhere on January 27, the bill was tracked for swift near-silent passage.
Save for the swift, fierce counterattack by Kansas communities across the state, the bill likely would have passed and then been trafficked to other states. Yet even before Kansans could catch a breath after winning their first skirmish (this bill ain’t dead yet!), here comes an anti-muni broadband attack that the state legislature dropped on Utah yesterday. The lesson for the rest of the U.S. is that 1) more attacks are coming from state legies frontin’ for lobbyists, and 2) Kansas is an inspiration and model-in-progress for how communities can beat down some of these attacks. Among other tactics, a statewide petition is demanding Kansas legies “put voters before lobbyists!”
SB 304 shocked people with the scope of its reach and the depth of its impact not only on communities’ rights to determine how to best serve constituents, but on the ability of new free market competition to take root. SB304 was so punitive, yet so vague in language that even Google and other private companies with existing customers would have been prohibited from expanding services.
Though not surprised by the bill’s sudden stealthy appearance, “In the seventeen years that I’ve been battling state barriers to entry, SB 304 is the most job-busting, investment-killing, and competition-throttling bill I’ve ever encountered, “ stated Atty. Jim Baller, President the Baller Herbst Group. He is a strong advocate for informed local choice in broadband matters. What also surprised Kansas broadband stakeholders is that the bill was written entirely by a lobbyist. “Sure, lobbyists and others write bills all the time,” says Public Knowledge Senior VP Harold Feld. “But we usually find it polite to at least PRETEND that you are independent legislators doing the job the people elected you to do.”
Attacked without warning
SB 304 was introduced in the Senate Commerce Committee Monday, January 27, by lobbyist John Federico on behalf of the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association. There was no co-author or sponsor from the state senate. Expect future attack legislation to be just as stealthy
Aaron Deacon, Managing Director of KC Digital Drive, believes the bill strikes a particularly devastating blow to the entrepreneurial spirit and resourcefulness of rural Kansas communities. “Cities such as Chanute, Ottawa and Hays have been working on their fiber infrastructure since long before Google made waves in Kansas City,” Deacon said. “It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that, whether they build true muni networks are not, cities can use their assets to spur competition and increase the economic development activity associated with fiber.”
Community broadband advocates have to stay vigilant and quickly scan a bill’s text to read between the lines. It helps to know who the national bloggers are who can tear a bill apart to get to a bill’s true intent, such as Phillip M. Dampier whose deconstruct of SB 304, revealed how the bill’s vague language opens the door for incumbents to lob endless legal actions against municipalities.
Nonprofits could be challenged for implementing digital inclusion programs. Companies such as Google could not use a city’s right of ways even if the only option provides spotty 3 Mbps service. Kansas City and Chanute, even though both already deliver gigabit services, couldn’t expand services to others within their communities, explained Chanute City Finance Director Rebecca Wood on a Gigabit Nation radio interview.
How SB 304 could spread to other states
The Commerce Committee Chair, Julia Lynn (R), in the face of equally swift (within 48 hours), media-driven grassroots opposition, decided to withdraw SB 304 for industry representatives to review. However, Kansas communities do not believe this is the end of the fight. Community broadband stakeholders in other states need to have an emergency plan for a 48-72-hour rapid response. Signs indicate other states should expect similar anti-municipal network legislation as well.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has an indirect role in SB 304 that could result in other states facing similar legislation. ALEC is composed primarily of conservative state legislators and corporate representatives including AT&T. ALEC facilitates state legislators and private sector members collaboration on model bills (templates). Templates are then passed around to different statehouses for legislators to customize and try to pass.
Kansas legislators have access to an ALEC template for a bill that targets municipal networks, though SB 304’s restrictive elements expand beyond those in the template. Given ALEC’s history of replicating model legislation that prove successful, communities elsewhere can expect to see draconian versions of SB 304 if it eventually does well in Kansas. Large incumbents show no inclination of slowing down their drive to eliminate or prevent competition.
Grassroots responses in Kansas to the bill provide a template of sorts for other communities to replicate. Despite being caught off guard, community broadband supporters quickly introduced a video produced by Chanute, KS, an array of Facebook pages and several Web sites. They recruited an A-list of corporate allies to strengthen their impact. Chris Mitchell, Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, brought a wealth of information resources into the battle and a map of the more than 300 successful muni-owned networks.
Communities across the U.S. are vigorously marching toward superfast Internet access networks. “We want a gigabit!” is a rallying call for many. But as Georgia last year and Kansas and Utah this year have shown, state legislatures are always a potential battlefield that can either help or hinder broadband advancement, depending on how prepared communities are for the fight. They collectively must have a presence in the statehouse besides their elected representatives, and grassroots supporters at home who proactively supports their local broadband interests.
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