One of the more deceitful of the telco/cableco tactics to eliminate municipal-owned broadband networks is the state-legislated local referendum asking citizens to approve these projects. Mercifully, the Colorado cities of Longmont and Centennial blew the doors off that strategy, and with barely a whimper from Comcast, a lead antagonist of that state’s public network efforts .
As Longmont discovered, these incumbent-engineered “referendum” laws cloaked in the illusion of democracy requires voter approval of even the intent to consider local government- or public utility-ownership of a broadband network. The sleight of hand at work here is this. City governments typically are the entity putting a measure to fund a broadband network on the ballot, but government officials are legally prevented from saying anything publicly in favor of the measure. Incumbents, on the other hand, can and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per election to defeat the initiative.
Yesterday, both Longmont and Centennial won their referendums (by 2: 1 and 3:1 margins respectively) to control city-owned infrastructure and the means by which each city facilitates bringing better, faster broadband to constituents.
Longmont’s vote was to approve a $44 million bond measure to speed up deploying broadband to every residence and business from 10 years to three. Longmont fought two battles in previous years to reclaim authority over their fiber network and sell broadband services to constituents. Comcast spent $300,000 in 2009 to defeat the first measure, and then $350,000 in 2011 to lose against a citizen’s group that spent a little over $5,000.
Centennial fought its first ballot war to have local authority over its fiber assets. Well, it wasn’t much of a war, really. With a little wording change in the measure to “indirectly” facilitate broadband service delivery to constituents, a lot of the bluster was sucked out of the incumbents’ sails. The upcoming months should reveal how this indirectness will play out in the long run.
What do these victories mean?
First, let there be no doubt that many towns and cities see the value of highspeed Net access and will put their money and resources where their hearts are. From numerous conversations, articles and hands-on work with communities, I see local officials and stakeholders in communities across the U.S. finding creative ways to overcome incumbent opposition to get faster broadband in place. Even in N. Carolina with one of the most restrictive ant-muni network laws in the U.S., communities continue to work for better Net access.
Second, the ballot battle can be won! I’ve talked to some community leaders who are reluctant to even consider putting a referendum to a vote. If your community does effective needs analysis (research), develops strong partnerships with anchor institutions and businesses, and uses creative grassroots marketing tactics, you can prevail. Remember – Longmont’s grass roots strategy and $5,000 trumped Comcast. Centennial de-fanged incumbents by re-defining the battle lines.
Third, changing existing anti-muni network legislation is tricky. The rebel rouser in me would rather see these laws obliterated. However, opening that line of attack could lead some ALEC-inspired pocket legislators to introduce even more restrictive legislation that could make things worse. If you (and a couple of lawyers) carefully read some of these laws, you may find some room for creative use of the law to your advantage. It won’t necessarily be easy to do, but would you prefer to continue to have sucky broadband, or join the ranks of Longmont and Centennial.
Fourth, be prepared (at least in Colorado) for an electoral two-step dance. Longmont didn’t try to pass a referendum to restore local authority AND a bond measure at the same time, though technically they could have. “That’s not going to happen with the intense incumbent opposition,” states Longmont Power & Communications’ Broadband Services Manager Vince Jordan. “You need to first have an election to get your authority back. Then you do an in-depth, high visibility feasibility study that determines how to financially sustain the network. Finally, you use the strength of that study to pass a bond measure.
I’ll address these and other tactics necessary to win at the ballot box in my Nov 20 training session for Colorado communities that will be held at Centennial’s Innovation Pavilion. Read the details are here.