Bills, legislation, and ordinances

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.

National franchises work against communities

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/17/2006 - 15:31

A fight is brewing in Congress over COPE, a new telecom bill that seeks to create national franchise agreements for video. As the phone companies try to get into the video services marketplace, they are at a severe disadvantage--the cable companies have had decades to negotiate local cable TV franchises. For every community the phone companies want to approach with video, they have to negotiate a franchise, which can take six months to a year.

If you don't think about it very much, a national franchise seems to make sense; we all want more competition in the telecom marketplace, and so one way to achieve that is to reduce the amount of legal paperwork needed. But there are so many things wrong with this bill, on both sides, that it is hard to list them all. But I'll try:

Part of the confusion about all this is a stubborn refusal by Congress and state legislators to have an honest and informed discussion about the rights of communities to determine their own economic destiny. Telecom companies that want to use community right of way should pay the true cost of that service, so in that sense, I support franchise fees vigorously (but I think we need a new name for them).

But legislators often look for simplistic solutions to complex problems, or inversely cook up complex solutions to simple problems. There is a little of both going on here, and communities are being left out. National franchising will inevitably lead to national franchise fees, with a single check written to the Feds, rather than the community. This is bad, bad, bad. Communities will be forced by the Feds to provide right of way access but will likely see very little of the franchise fee. And we'll have a new Federal bureacracy--the Federal Bureau of Community Right of Way.

Communities have to start today, build their own infrastructure, manage their own right of way, and take control before all is lost. Communities without a right of way and franchise fee strategy will be the biggest losers.

New Hampshire HB 653 approved 22-1 in Senate

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/20/2006 - 12:48

New Hampshire state senators voted 22-1 in favor of HB 653, which gives local governments in the state the authority not only to create and own communitywide broadband networks, but also to use bonding authority to pay for such networks, just as communities use bonds to build other municipal infrastucture like roads, water, and sewer.

I think this is one of several models we will see emerge as a standard way for communities to undertake these projects. Bonds are a time tested and well understood financial vehicle that communities have used for decades, to build systems much more complex and more expensive than fiber and wireless. Design Nine completed a telecommunications master plan for the northern half of New Hampshire in 2005.

Vermont lowers barriers to broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/14/2006 - 10:32

Vermont legislators are debating legislation that would provide low interest loans to wireless providers that offer broadband in underserved areas of the state. And even better, the state lawmakers may waive onerous state-required impact reviews and red tape for new wireless towers if local communities have an approved review process in place.

This is exactly what government should be doing--making it easier and less expensive for the private sector to build out broadband infrastructure. The wireless tower changes recognize that broadband wireless towers are usually much lower and less obtrusive than cell towers, and don't require the same level of study and oversight.

Good for Vermont. Let's hope this bill breezes through the legislature and gets passed quickly.

It's now illegal to be annoying

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/10/2006 - 08:00

In yet another vivid demonstration of why scissors and other sharp objects should be kept away from members of Congress, our esteemed lawmakers have passed a bill that *seems* to make being annoying illegal. A bill passed to protect women from sexual harrassment has language in it that was apparently added to address online harrassment as well (e.g. repeated unsolicited email). But according to this article, the language got watered down somewhere along the way and now seems to say just being annoying could be illegal.

Among Internet pundits, this is getting a lot of discussion this morning, and is likely to make a big splash in the mainstream press as well. There are conflicting opinions on the wording of the law, with some arguing that the statute is written narrowly enough not to be problematic. One issue being debated is just how one defines "annoying." I daresay many of us are annoyed whenever we get one of those happy talk emails from the CEO about "synergy" and "convergence of optimized customer relationships," but can we now have our boss arrested? Disclaimer: I'm a CEO, so perhaps I need to be worried.

BellSouth voted for network neutrality before they voted against it

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/13/2005 - 10:04

BellSouth has somewhat humorously agreed that network neutrality is important in principle but the company then went on to say that no legislation is needed to ensure that because, "We're a big telecom company and would never do anything bad."

Okay, I made that last quote up--BellSouth did not actually say that in exactly that way, but read the article [link no longer available] and see what you think.

Network neutrality is the concept that your Internet access provider (i.e. your DSL or cable modem provider) cannot block services coming from other vendors. This issue is rapidly coming to a boil because the telephone and cable companies want to block third party VoIP providers. The telephone and cable companies want to sell that service to you themselves.

But there is something bigger at work in all this than clumsy efforts to preserve old-style monopolies. Our current system of charging for a broadband connection is badly broken. There is very little relationship between the fees we pay for broadband and the amount of bandwidth we actually use. And new services like VoIP and IP TV have turned the heat up. The current system is unsustainable.

Network neutrality is important, but it's awfully hard to make it work when some service providers get a free ride on part of the Internet, which is what happens now.

The solution is to make broadband connections free, but to charge for services, and to split those fees among the several entities that are involved in both providing the service and providing the infrastructure that the service uses. By doing so, the market forces prices to rise or fall based on demand for the service, rather than the made up cost of an empty or partially full "pipe."

Free speech fight on the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/03/2005 - 10:43

Congress is fighting over a bill that would protect bloggers from having to file onerous reports on their activities. Part of the fall out of the 2002 campaign finance law is strict regulations on campaigning and candidate support. The problem arises because the law is so vague that a private citizen with a lightly read blog who endorses a candidate for election would fall under the regulation of the Federal Election Committee.

Most of the original sponsors of the bill agree that they never intended to try to regulate the speech of private citizens, but instead were trying to limit the influence of well-organized groups. But the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in on this one, as it seems to so often when legislators are involved.

Blogging, in principle, is no different than the pamphleteering that was so popular in the early days of the country. Tom Paine, one of America's greatest political writers and analysts, was a blogger. He wrote down his own thoughts, published them at his own expense, and distributed his thoughts to interested readers. That's blogging, and I don't think a Federal Commission should be telling us what we can and cannot write.

What baffles me is how this has become a partisan issues. Both conservative and liberal bloggers stand to lose from limits on free speech. It is almost always the case that if you seek to limit the speech of your opponents in the U.S., the laws come back around to bite you. What might look like clever political strategy today could be disastrous a year from now. More voices is a good thing, and I don't see the need for limits on speech. Right or left, the more the merrier--that is what America is all about.

Bloggers fight free speech restrictions

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 10:40

In a perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a Federal campaign reform law has created confusion about whether or not it applies to blogs, which are normally written by just one or perhaps a handful of people.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) officials don't even agree on what is correct. Some commissioners think bloggers and Internet campaigning generally are exempt, and others disagree.

Strictly interpreted, any time a blogger discussed politics, it would potentially generate paperwork and FEC reports, and taking political ads on a blog site would trigger more reporting.

Since bloggers generally don't make a full time living from their blogs, and most do it as a no-income or low-income sideline, any reporting requirements at all would force them to avoid any discussion of politics, abridging their right to free speech.

SBC, Verizon, win in Texas

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 09:12

Unlike a lot of other folks, I'm not greatly worried that SBC and Verizon spent millions to influence some new laws in Texas. The Texas legislature, after a lengthy fight, has agreed to give the phone companies a statewide franchise to offer television content in Texas. This saves them the trouble of going to every community in Texas and negotiating individual franchises.

But let me also be perfectly clear--I don't like this, but--but--I'm not greatly worried by it. Two different things.

Here's why I don't like it.

First, it takes authority away from local communities and gives it to the state. This actually has nothing to do with telecom per se; I am always troubled when communities lose decisionmaking power.

U.K. arrest for wireless theft

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/25/2005 - 09:59

Here is the second case of a person being arrested and charged for using someone else's wireless access. The perpetrator was caught deliberating cruising a residential neighborhood in the U.K. looking for open wireless access points (called wardriving).

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