Bills, legislation, and ordinances

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).

Lafayette says "yes" to fiber

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/18/2005 - 08:01

In what may become a milestone in the quest for broadband, a public referendum in Lafayette, Louisiana to use municipal bonds to fund a fiber network passed by a wide margin (62% of voters said "yes"). Lafayette's public electric utility wanted to offer fiber broadband to its customers a couple of years ago, and the city became ground central for a bitterly fought battle led by the telephone and cable companies, which spent millions to stop the initiative.

Lafayette was probably a poor choice to fight the community. In 1896, the town had to form the Lafayette Utilities Service because the big electric companies refused to provide service to the rural community.

The Lafayette vote is significant. It was held on a Saturday, and received a 27% turnout, which is pretty high for a single issue vote (it was the only item on the ballot). Politicians across the country will have to look more closely at broadband issues going forward, because the one weakness of the telephone and cable companies is that companies do not vote--but citizens do, and in Lafayette, the citizens spoke loudly and clearly on the issue. All the lobbyist money in the world can't offset citizens determined to make a change.

The city says the first customers will get their fiber connections in about two years, and it will take a total of three and a half years to get fiber to every home and business in the community. That's not bad, considering it took almost 40 years to get a telephone to most homes.

Community Broadband Act is the right direction

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/15/2005 - 09:06

Introduced by Senators McCain (Arizona-R) and Lautenberg (New Jersey-D), the Community Broadband Act of 2005 would give communities the right to build out telecom infrastructure and/or offer telecom services to their citizens. The bill would prevent states from pandering to the incumbent providers by prohibiting local governments from getting involved in telecom.

This quote by Lautenberg shows that the senators have done their homework and actually are familiar with the history of public services in the U.S., something that most leaders, especially at the state level, seem woefully ignorant of:

Broadband might not be as essential as water, but it’s becoming increasingly important in our competitive global economy. Those who are left out of the high-speed revolution will miss out on opportunities for better jobs and education and a higher quality of life.

A century ago, there were efforts to prevent local governments from providing electricity to residents. Opponents argued that private businesses would suffer if they faced competition from cities and towns. But community leaders recognized that their economic survival depended on the availability of electricity, and they knew it would take both private and public investment to bring electricity to all Americans.

State telecom deregulation activity

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/05/2005 - 12:49

NRRI has a great summary of what is happening in individual states ontelecommunications deregulation, and there is a link at the top of the page to see the actual bills.

Sessions bill garners attention

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/09/2005 - 14:54

The Pete Session bill (R-Texas) would create a Federal law prohibiting states and munipalities from offering broadband as a public service. Sessions has this to say:

"Rather than investing in vital public works projects, some local and state governments are investing their limited funds into telecommunications projects and putting taxpayer dollars at risk," the five-term congressman from Dallas said in a statement. "By choosing to invest their limited resources in telecommunications infrastructures, municipal governments often duplicate services already provided by a private entity."

It is worth noting that Sessions, before he became a Congressman, worked for the phone company. What a surprise. Sessions would have apparently opposed public water projects one hundred years ago, since there were private water companies before cities and towns began to take on that service. Sessions apparently would have also opposed paved roads, since private companies also built roads before governments took that over.

It is hard to understand just how foolish Sessions can be, but it seems obvious the man has not studied much history, and has thought very little about how communities came to provide what he calls "vital public works projects." Most of those were taken on because the private sector could not or would not provide those services to every household and business. Does that sound familiar?

There is also a constitutional question here. Where the does the Federal government find it has jurisdiction over local, intra-state communities, or the states themselves, in this matter?

Overview of anti-muni broadband legislation

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/08/2005 - 11:21

Here is an excellent and relatively optimistic summary of what's happening at the state and Federal level with respect to anti-muni broadband, or as my old friend Gene Crick would say, "...the best laws money can buy."

The telcos and cable companies are simultaneously claiming that communities can't cope with the complexity of broadband (which in fact is a heck of a lot easier to install and maintain than sewer systems or electric systems) while screaming loudly that they need protection from unfair competition.

As Bill Gurley, the author of the article points out, which is it? Are communities a bunch of incompetent, bumbling zealots who are going to waste tax dollars (meaning they can't be much in the way of competition), or if they are serious competition, then it's pretty hard to claim they are incompetent.

Broadcast flag yanked down

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/09/2005 - 07:01

In a great victory for the rest of us, a Federal appellate court told the FCC to quit mucking with television receivers and to stop meddling in areas for which the Commission has no authorization. If that sounds harsh, it's mild compared to what the judge actually said:

You're out there in the whole world, regulating. Are washing machines next?" asked Judge Harry Edwards. Quipped Judge David Sentelle: "You can't regulate washing machines. You can't rule the world."

Back in 2003, the FCC had declared that all television tuners and receivers sold in the U.S. after July 1st, 2005, had to respect the "broadcast flag," which is a gimmick dreamed up by Hollywood (the Motion Picture Association) to control content unfairly and to force everyone in the country to eventually buy a new TV, among other problems. The broadcast flag, a digital code that would be included on every television broadcast, would tell VCRs, Tivo-type devices, computers, and anything else capable of recording video that the material could NOT be recorded, or if it could, under very limited circumstances.

The FCC rules flew in the face of decades of court rulings that generally said consumers had the right to make recordings for their own use and certain other uses (in libraries, as one example). The "fair use" doctrine has consistently been supported and extended by the courts, even for related technologies like photocopying.

The court ruling will keep some manufacturers from having to drop whole product lines because the cost to add the complicated broadcast flag circuitry was prohibitive.

Colorado interested in a "Qwest Monopoly Protection Act"

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/03/2005 - 09:18

Dave Hughes, one of the true pioneers of community broadband, has a hard-hitting article about the "Qwest Monopoly Protection Act" that is close to being passed in Colorado. Like a similar and very bad Pennsylvania law, it would bar communities from investing in their own future. The most sobering part of the article is Hughes' point that some communities in Nepal have better broadband services than some rural communities in Colorado. I know Hughes is right about that because I saw Dave make a phone call to Nepal last year in Austin, using a cheap laptop, the conference center WiFi service, and Voice over IP. We got a guy out of bed in Nepal to answer the phone at 4 in them morning, but the point is the service works. The Nepal system was designed and installed by Dave himself, using inexpensive off the shelf equipment.

I guess Colorado lawmakers think their state slogan for economic development should be, "Colorado--almost as good as Nepal."

Holland and the iPod tax

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/29/2005 - 08:56

The Register reports on a new law enacted in Holland that can charitably only be described as "stupid." In a misguided effort to prop up the ailing music industry, the Netherlands has decided to impose a per megabyte tax on all hard drive-based music players, with the proceeds going to the music industry.

This means, according to the article, that the 60 gigabyte model of the iPod would have a tax of $235! According to the Register, Germany also has a tax on computer hard drives, and as they get bigger, the hard drive tax could exceed the base cost of the computer (that is, the tax will be several thousand dollars).

There are so many things wrong with this approach that it is hard to know where to begin. In the first place, the Holland law assumes that all music stored on portable music players is stolen, when in fact only a very small percentage is. So music lovers have to pay royalties twice--once when they buy the music, and again when they buy the music player. It's a windfall for the music industry, since only a small part of royalties actually go to the artist. It forces the music player retailers to become tax collectors, which is always a bad idea. And it will simply drive the purchase of music players out of the country. Holland is an easy drive from a half dozen other countries, and it's barely an afternoon trip to take the train to France, pick up an iPod, and go home.

The music industry does not have a "right" to make money. As markets and technologies change, businesses have to change too. This business of using laws to protect monopolies hurts communities and whole countries, as innovation and new products are simply driven elsewhere. It's a global economy, and Dutch lawmakers are naive in extreme to believe this law will work. It will only hurt the country's economic development as businesses see their customers go elsewhere, and not just for iPods. While they are across the border, they are likely to shop for other items as well.

NH HB 653 to let communities use bonds to finance broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/29/2005 - 13:30

This bill was held over in committee for more work this year. Text as of March, 2005 is below.






AN ACT relative to bonds for construction, development, improvement, and acquisition of broadband facilities.

SPONSORS: Rep. Maxfield, Merr 6; Rep. Osborne, Merr 12; Sen. Gallus, Dist 1

COMMITTEE: Municipal and County Government


This bill grants municipalities the ability to issue bonds for the development of broadband services.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Explanation: Matter added to current law appears in bold italics.

Matter removed from current law appears [in brackets and struckthrough.]

Matter which is either (a) all new or (b) repealed and reenacted appears in regular type.




In the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Five

AN ACT relative to bonds for construction, development, improvement, and acquisition of broadband facilities.

Be it Enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court convened:

1 New Section; Broadband Infrastructure Bonds. Amend RSA 33 by inserting after section 3-f the following new section:

33:3-g Broadband Infrastructure Bonds Authorized.

I. In this section:

(a) “Broadband” means the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, with or without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received, at rates of transmission as defined by the Federal Communications Commission as “Broadband”.

(b) “Broadband carrier” means any provider of broadband services, except that such term shall not include aggregators of broadband services, as defined in section 226 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

(c) “Broadband infrastructure” means any and all equipment and facilities, including any and all changes and modifications and expansions to existing facilities as well as the customer premises equipment, used to provide broadband, and includes any and all software integral to or related to the operations, support, facilitation, or interconnection of such equipment, including upgrades, and includes any and all installation, operations and support, maintenance and other functions as may be required to support the delivery of broadband.

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