Bills, legislation, and ordinances

Broadband Stimulus Webinar

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/18/2009 - 09:52

I'll be part of a Webinar on broadband stimulus funding, and my portion will address the kind of planning that may be needed for community broadband grant requests. Here is the link for more information; note that registration is required (but the seminar is free).

Will Pennsylvania ban community broadband?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/10/2009 - 07:54

According to Broadband Reports, a bill is being considered by the Pennsylvania legislature that would make it virtually impossible for communities in that state to use stimulus funds for any kind of broadband infrastructure--even in areas that are unserved or underserved by incumbents.

Part of this is just poor information gathering by legislative staff, since there are myriad ways to structure community investments in broadband to benefit the private sector. Design Nine has been helping communities do this for years, and it is straightforward to create win/win situations that allow local governments to make targeted investments that create private sector job and business opportunities.

$2 billion for broadband cut from stimulus bill

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/09/2009 - 09:47

Regardless of what you think about the stimulus spending, cutting funds for broadband seems not well thought out. The U.S. is behind many other countries in part because government subsidies have been used heavily in other countries to accelerate availability of broadband. If jobs creation is a primary goal of the spending plan, then it seems like almost any infrastructure investment--roads, sewer, water, bridges, broadband--would be a good way to get things going, as private sector firms usually do most of the work.

Broadband does not take "years"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/26/2009 - 09:19

Senator John McCain, on Fox News Sunday, said, "...some of the projects and others that you just mentioned, $6 billion for broadband and internet access. That will take years." He was being interviewed about the stimulus package. Given careful oversight and a sharp focus on communities that have already done planning work, a lot of homes could get high performance wireless and fiber connections in 2009 and 2010. Most of the work would be done by private sector firms, which would create jobs. And the improved connectivity would enable more job and business opportunities in the communities that get the funds.

What is unfortunate is that in a discussion of spending something around $1 trillion, that less than one percent is being considered for 21st century infrastructure. Renewal and replacement of roads and bridges is also important, but that funding could be tied to broadband--for example, any bridge improvements could also require placing telecom duct on the bridge during the construction work, so that the bridge is "telecom ready." Crossing bridges without such duct in place is a major time and cost headache for community projects.

Broadband stimulus package should be thoughtful

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/29/2008 - 10:10

Wired has a thoughtful article about the potential (good and bad) for a broadband stimulus initiative. There is much speculation that the incoming adminstration will, among other spending initiatives, provide funds for broadband deployment.

Ironically, taking fiber to every home and business in America (about 80 million premises), would be much less expensive than many of the other "bailout" initiatives and would be much more likely to have positive effects. The total cost would probably be around $175 billion if done the right way, which is a series of well-designed local and regional initiatives pursuing a single open access, open services network with all telecom services provided by the private sector (and the network, the digital road system, managed locally or regionally as a public good).

Ownership and management structures should be allowed to vary; in some places direct municipal ownership might be the best approach. In other parts of the country, a regional broadband authority or a broadband coop might be more appropriate.

What we don't need is handouts to the incumbent telcos, who have, for the most part, diligently pursued failed business models and who have stubbornly refused to provide affordable business class services in the face growing demand. And we don't need a Federal Bureau of Telecommunications creating an Orwellian nightmare of centrally managed services. Local and regional governments have successfully managed road networks locally for decades. We can use this tried and true approach to build digital road systems. The Interstate Highway System is a good example of useful Federal intervention: Federal funds financed the development of highways, but states took over ownership and management once they were built.

We now just need to push that down a level, as what is badly needed is NOT more "information superhighways," but instead local connections to homes and businesses. When you get down to hooking up local property, this is best managed locally. Do we really want State or Federal agencies plowing up our yards and streets? Better to work with local governments, who already do this very well with water, sewer, and roads.

Congress says "Yes" to community broadband

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/12/2007 - 08:17

Both houses of Congress have passed the Community Broadband Act of 2007. The bill fixes a defect in the 1996 Telecom act that says "any entity" may offer telecom services. The meaning of "any" was challenged repeatedly in state level lawsuits, and some misguided state legislatures went even farther and made it illegal for local governments to start telecom service offerings.

In general, I think it is better for communities to invest in "digital road systems" and let the private sector use those digital roads to sell telecom services directly to customers. This creates a public/private partnership that does not put local government in direct competition with the private sector. But communities should still have the option of offering retail telecom services if they think that is the best way to proceed. In some areas, that may be required for certain services, like TV programming, because of market size.

Could Internet taxes show up?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/26/2007 - 08:39

A 1998 ban on taxing services provided over the Internet is due to expire next month. Congress has three options: make the tax ban permanent, extend the ban for several more years, or start raking in a whole new source of cash.

If Congress decides to tax Internet access, everyone's access provider bills (dial up, DSL, cable modem, wireless, Blacksberry, etc.) could jump as much as fifteen to twenty percent.

The big picture issue here is whether Congress ought to be making the telecom industry tax collectors at all. For business, telecom taxes are pure overhead that crimp a company's ability to create jobs and pay for expansion. And if the company is profitable, it is still going to pay taxes on the profits. From an economic development perspective, telecom taxes are a drag on jobs development and business growth. Design Nine, as an example, gets phone bills with as much as 30% of the charges just taxes of various kinds, from local, state, and the Federal government.

Given the weak state of the economy right now, let's hope Congress does the right thing and extends the ban on Internet taxes for services.

Here we go again...

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/26/2007 - 07:28

Senator Ted "the Internet is made of tubes" Stevenson is at it again, calling for "universal" filtering of the Internet to protect us all from pornography. The Internet pornography problem is a serious one, and deserves serious attention, but Senator Stevens is not making a serious proposal.

First, the Federal government has no business filtering and checking everything we look at; it is as if the government planned to put an agent on our doorstep and insisted on looking at every book, magazine, and letter that we tried to carry in the house, and had the power to arbitrarily remove any item without explanation, including the pictures of your one year old niece in the bathtub that your sister in law sent in the mail (it would classified as child pornography).

Second, Senator Stevens reveals that his understanding of the Internet has not evolved much past the "tubes" analogy. There is no one central location for the "Internet." It is everywhere and nowhere. It does not stop at national boundaries. U.S. laws have no effect on servers and content providers in other countries. Stevens' proposal smacks of political grandstanding ("'s for the children") at a time when there are much more serious issues that beg for attention.

Grappling with technology

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 02/14/2007 - 09:37

An Illinois legislator has introduced a bill to outlaw "social networking" sites in Illinois libraries and schools. The bill is extremely broad, and probably will never be passed, but it is an interesting exercise in lawmaking.

The problem is real. Sites like MySpace and FaceBook have user profiles that promote pornography directly and indirectly, and is that something we really want our kids to be looking at on school computers or in public library computers funded with taxpayer dollars? I have been dealing with this issue since the early days of the Blacksburg Electronic Village, and I think what is needed is more adult supervision of children--hands on adults--parents and teachers who pay attention to what is going on in the classroom or in the library and dealing with it appropriately and promptly. This law would make police responsible, and worse, it is not the kids who get punished for accessing inappropriate material, but teachers and librarians. This is just kooky. We are going to arrest a teacher because they failed to notice that a hormonally challenged fourteen year old boy was caught looking at something inappropriate? It is the kid who should be punished, not the teacher or the librarian.

A second problem with the law is that "social networking" is inescapably vague. This site has most of the same "social networking" features as MySpace; users can register and post comments and "talk" to each other. Millions of sites could be defined as "social networking" sites, so who decides what is acceptable and what is not? We need more reason and less grandstanding as we grapple with these new systems.

Forida votes for paper

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/02/2007 - 07:06

The state of Florida is ready to toss electronic voting machines in the trash and go back to paper. The state plans to use paper ballots, where the voter makes a mark in an oval next to the candidate's name. The ballot is then scanned optically, just like the aptitude tests that have used this system for decades. The paper/optical scanning approach provides an audit trail that can be read manually if necessary but also provides for rapid vote counting by automated equipment.

The tragedy, of course, is that taxpayers get to foot the bill for this travesty--$30 million to purchase the new gear, and probably much more than that for the stuff destined for the landfill. And this was not even an honest mistake. Legislators had plenty of warning that the touch voting equipment was going to cause problems, and they went ahead and bought it anyway.

The core problem? Legislators believed the promises of equipment vendors, rather than getting advice from experts who would not benefit financially from the sale of such equipment. The same problem exists generally whenever you are buying any kind of network or computer gear: vendors, even the best ones, will sell you what they have, and that may not always match what you need. Make sure you understand your needs first, before talking to vendors about "solutions."

Local franchise fee fight brewing

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/29/2007 - 07:46

The Roanoke Times has a front page article on a possible challenge to a recent FCC ruling that federalizes cable franchise fees. I could not find a link to it online, but it is an AP report, so it should start showing up in the search engines later today. I have been warning that local government rights were under attack for almost two years. The FCC wants to take away the ability of local government to manage right of way. Unfortunately, some communities have made the problem more difficult by using franchise fees for community perks rather than tying them directly to the cost of right of way access. Had they done the latter, it would be much more difficult for the FCC to change the rules.

The article today alleges that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin provided misleading information to FCC commissioners, and some communities appear ready to challenge the decision on those grounds. Whatever the outcome, I still believe the current approach to franchising, whether at the local or the Federal level, is old-fashioned. If communities want to manage telecom and spur economic development, there are better ways to do it than trying to tax some companies but not others. And for advocates of public access television, which is often supported by franchise fees, there are better ways to do that as well, that could greatly expand the reach and scope of local community media. But like the monkey with its fist stuck in the coconut, you have to be willing to let go of Manfacturing Economy economic models first.

Franchises and big boxes

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/19/2006 - 09:10

AT&T is in fights with several communities over it's "U-verse" data service. It used to be called "Project Lightspeed," but the company dropped that name, probably when people noticed that the system actually delivered services over copper (speeded up DSL).

Some communities are fighting the firm over franchise fees. AT&T is offering a triple play (voice, video, and data) set of services, but wants to classify the new system as a "data" service rather than the two traditional classifications: telecommunications (used for telephone providers) or cable (used for TV services). The distinction is an important one, both for communities and for the companies that offer the services. Cable services have typically been subject to franchise fees, while data services are unregulated. AT&T wants to use the data classification to avoid franchise fees.

Some communities have come to rely too heavily on franchise fees, and want every new service provider to pay them. I have said for a long time that communities would be better off letting go of the forty year old tax system (that's all it is, really, a tax) and encourage competition for service in the community. Prices would go down, and everyone that buys telecom services would benefit. I think it is always a bad idea when you make certain businesses tax collectors, but not others.

The broader issue for franchise fees is that as the kinds of services we want extend beyond triple play, how do you tax them services and businesses, many of which have no physical presence in the community. The answer is that you can't, so do you really want to tax only those companies that actually make physical investments in infrastructure? The answer, again, is "No."

There are two alternatives to franchise fees. One is to charge companies that want to use public right of way a right of way fee. You charge the same fee to every firm that places cables and equipment in right of way. This is fair because every firm is treated the same way, regardless of the service they offer, and it is fair because there is a real cost to the community to manage public right of way. But it should not be used as a general fund revenue enhancement (tax) unless you want to inhibit competition and unless you like paying high prices for telecom services.

The second alternative to franchise fees (and right of way fees) is for the community to build its own digital road system and to let private companies use that road system to sell services. Companies that do use it will pay the community a portion of revenue to cover the cost of building and maintaining it. This is the best approach, in my opinion, because it preserves public right of way (a scarce resource) and these Open Service Provider Networks (OSPNs) lower the cost of telecom services in the community, saving both tax dollars and business dollars. More money is freed up for other uses across the entire community.

AT&T, in addition to the franchise fee fight, is also arguing with communities over right of way issues. The squabbles highlight why it is so important for communities to have a thoughtful and even-handed right of way policy before companies like AT&T show up with the big new equipment boxes that they want to scatter all over town. I identified this as a problem more than six years ago. I call these boxes NSAPs, or Neighborhood Service Access Points. These streetside cabinets house the electronics needed to deliver telecom services to homes and businesses.

AT&T does not want to tell communities where they intend to put the boxes (for fear competitors will find out), and they often appropriate right of way or even part of someone's yard for the boxes. A pro-active right of way policy that anticipates these kind of uses will help a community avoid lawsuits.

For more information on these NSAP boxes, take a look at this one, to see the ugly side of not planning for these. One advantage of a community system is that you minimize the number of NSAPs needed. And this long article should be required reading for every town and county planner and every elected official.

How about your community? Is there a recently revised right of way policy in place that reflects the new realities of an unregulated telecommunications marketplace? What about NSAPs? Do you have a policy that requires all new subdivisions to plan for the placement of these units and that requires right of way set asides for them in locations that minimize their landscape impact? What about franchise fees? Have you developed a new approach to right of way management that reflects current and future telecom trends, rather than clinging to a forty year old tax model?

Social networking ban: good or bad?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/04/2006 - 06:28

A bill has been approved by the House of Representatives that requires K12 schools and libraries that receive Federal funding to block social networking sites, so that minors cannot access them.

It is a kind of darned if you do, darned if you don't situation. In general, I oppose government meddling in what we look at online. But sites like Facebook and MySpace are filled with hardcore pornography, and I don't think our kids really need to be exposed to that in the middle school computer lab. Worse, it is easy for sexual predators to browse such sites and pick out likely victims--kids are putting pictures, their names, and even their phone numbers and street addresses on the sites.

It would be better if these bans were voluntary, developed by schools and library staff in cooperation with parents, as local standards, rather than having the heavy and often arbitrary hand of the Federal government. Pornography really is the scourge of the Internet, and it is hard to figure out how to protect our right to access what we think is important versus the need to protect children.

Making ISPs snoop for the government

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 09:59

The FBI continues to lobby to try to force ISPs to snoop for the government. This is something the federal agency has been asking for for years, and has tried to get Congress and the FCC to go along with the plan.

What the FBI wants is for every ISP to provide private access to an ISPs entire network so that the FBI can just log in and snoop at its convenience. In theory, court orders would be required, just like wiretaps, but to have private backdoors is to invite abuse.

And if the FBI really believes they need access to the network of an ISP, they can get a court order today and go to the ISP and get whatever records they need. So it is not like they need the new regulations to get something they don't have. Even in a time of war, the FBI is asking for too much power.

USA Today on Net Neutrality

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/12/2006 - 06:45

USA Today has a useful summary of net neutrality, with a two column, side by side comparison of the issues and the players. Congress continues to squabble over this issue, with what appears to be a notable lack of understanding of what is involved. The current legislation is now opposed by nearly every single municipal and county professional organization that represents either local government officials or local government generally, which should be a signal to legislators that something is not quite right. But Congress has never minded stripping communities of decisionmaking and control in the past, so we can only hope the sausage factory we call Congress, in the end, makes something palatable to communities.

Our lawmakers explain the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/03/2006 - 10:15

If it wasn't enough to be known as the Senator who wanted the bridge to nowhere, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has probably secured a permanent place in history, right along with Al "I invented the Internet" Gore, as the Senator who said this:

"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

Senator "The Internet is a series of tubes" Stevens is fast becoming the laughingstock of the Internet with this remark, which sounds suspiciously like how a lobbyist might try to explain it to a lawmaker. There is a place for analogy (I like to use the roads analogy), but when you are making laws that will effect the work and livelihood of hundreds of millions of Americans, you have an obligation to take the time to truly understand the issues.

It is frightening to think this guy is a key lawmaker. Here is a Wired article with more on Stevens and his tubes, but there are already many thousands of comments and commentary on this. Oddly, Stevens may have done all of us a big favor by revealing his deep ignorance of the topic. It may now be much harder to get a pro-telecom bill passed.

And just to be clear, while multimedia does tend to slow things down under certain conditions, that problem does not require massive Federal legislative meddling to fix--Stevens wants to basically hand the keys to the Internet over to the cable and telephone companies. If he thinks the "tube" problem is bad now, wait until the "tubes" are managed by the telephone and cable companies.

Congress continues to pander to the telecom industry

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/30/2006 - 09:11

This blog entry from Harold Feld is a little dramatic, but not much, considering how high the stakes are. Congress, with special attention to Senator "Bridge to Nowhere" Stevens from Alaska, has crafted a bill cleverly called the "Community Broadband Act of 2006." This little piece of wolf in sheep's clothing purports from its name to be pro-community, but basically prohibits communities from making direct investments in broadband.

I'm told by people that know a lot more about the politics of this bill that it will probably never get passed, but I'm somewhat less worried about it than many others, mainly because I think there are other options to complete municipal ownership. A regional nonprofit or broadband coop offers a lot of advantages, especially for communities that do not have a public electric utility.

What does concern me is the lack of attention that Congress has for the users of broadband. This bill is essentially a sellout, with a complete lack of balanced dialogue in Washington about the long term implications of the policies embedded in this bill. As my good friend Gene Crick remarked once about Texas ("...Texas has the best laws money can buy"), this bill represents the best law that money can buy. A short note to your elected representatives would be in order.

Here is an update on the legislation from Feld, who is tracking this closely. Some changes have been made that move it a bit closer to what communities need (but not close enough, in my opinion).

Don't confuse franchise fees with right of way rights

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/29/2006 - 07:49

South Carolina legislators have passed a bill that creates statewide franchising. What distresses me is that two distinct issues have been mixed up together in this legislation. Franchise fees have been lumped together with right of way. Franchise fees, as originally conceived, no longer make sense when content providers don't have to have a physical presence in the community. But communities do need to have control over their right of way and over those companies that still want to place cable in community right of way. The bill is bad law not so much because franchise fees have been eliminated but because communities have had their rights taken away (the right to manage their own common/public property).

The only solution, in my opinion, is for communities to get busy and build their own, open access broadband networks. Doing so eliminates the overbuilding in community right of way.

Congress tries to bring down the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/01/2006 - 08:07

Congress is at it again. Apparently our Federal legislators don't have enough to do, so they have cooked up a new bill that would require every service provider and Web site to maintain access records indefinitely. Sponsored by Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette, the bill is supposedly to fight child pornography. But the bill would give law enforcement officials unlimited rights to snoop everywhere that anyone has ever been online, forever.

This is the most egregious abuse of privacy Congress has yet managed to think up. Lest you think it applies only to the likes of AOL and Verizon, it would apply to anyone that runs a Web site, even the Ladies Garden Club.

In the real world, this would be like requiring local stores (e.g. your local hardware store or quick-stop) to make every customer sign in, record the time and date, and then make the book available to police and Federal officials whenever they wanted it, even fifty years from now.

It is a law enforcement dream come true, but a citizen and business nightmare. One little problem--the amount of data that sites would have to maintain (over years and years, remember) will create a boom in hard drive sales and would become a backup and data retention nightmare. Big sites with lots of traffic (e.g. CNN, ESPN, etc.) throw most of their data away very quickly because it is a storage problem.

Your tax dollars at work. Call or write your Congressional reps and tell them the DeGette bill is an invasion of your privacy and that you don't want businesses turned into police snoops.

Who owns and controls right of way?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/25/2006 - 06:20

Right of way issues are central to the future of communities. Right now, cable and telephone companies are trying to wrest control of right of way from local government. They want the Federal government and/or the states to control right of way, and they may well win if local officials don't get involved quickly.

The incumbent providers want to build de facto monopoly networks as quickly as possible, and one way to speed that up is to simply bypass any and all negotiations with local communities over right of way permits and franchise fees. The incumbents want "by right" access to any and all right of way without having to ask permission. They will simply pay a fee to the state or Federal government to gain access to local rights of way.

Communities lose big--they not only lose all the franchise fees, but they lose control over their own right of way--a scarce resource that can be used up quickly. Loss of right of way is an economic development issue, and economic developers should be arm in arm with local elected leaders fighting this one. Fights are brewing all over the country.

You might think that the Feds and state officials will help with this struggle, but you may want to think again. They see state and national franchising as a new source of revenue, and are going to claim this will help spread broadband more quickly, while happily taking all the franchise fees. It will only help spread the inferior, slow broadband we already have, rather than the fast, fiber-based systems we need to compete in the global economy.

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