Google Fiber and other community broadband projects in Kansas may have dodged a legislative bullet – for now.
Legislation was introduced early last week to prevent local governments from creating their own broadband networks or partnering with companies to provide them. Although the bill was pulled from consideration on Friday, had it gone forward, SB 304 potentially could have made expansion of Google Fiber in the state more difficult in the future.
Backed by the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association (KCTA) – whose members include providers such as Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable – SB 304 had been scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 4, before being removed on Jan. 31. But the legislation may return later this year with some changes in place.
“We pulled it back because we needed to work on some language specific to what the definition of an unserved area [is],” said John Federico, president of the KCTA, in an interview with Government Technology. “There were some questions whether this bill would prohibit partnerships between governments and private providers, and that wasn’t our intention. I think that’s what got Google involved, thinking it was an anti-Google bill. Google’s name never came up once during our conversations about whether or not we should introduce this bill.”
Critics of the bill – also called the Municipal Communications Network and Private Telecommunications Investments Safeguard Act – were adamant that its language was extremely restrictive in regard to how public funds could be used to subsidize broadband initiatives. Section 7 of SB 304 was a grandfather clause that may have exempted a project like Google Fiber in Kansas City, but it may not have allowed for future growth of the initiative.
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Although Google is paying to install the network in Kansas City, Kan., the agreement between the company and the city gives Google a break on rent for use of utility poles in exchange for providing broadband for various school and government buildings. Mike Taylor, the lobbyist for Kansas City, Kan., told the Wichita Eagle that had the bill had gone forward in its original form, it would likely have banned similar municipal arrangements in the future.
Community broadband expert Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, agreed. In an email to Government Technology, Mitchell said in addition to possibly hamstringing Google’s efforts in Kansas, the bill's language was broad enough to probably stop any public-private partnership in the telecommunications arena.
“I think this bill reveals the real desires of big cable companies – they literally want to prevent any possible competition,” Mitchell said. “I think allowing this bill to come through, written and introduced by cable lobbyists shows that they have far too much power in Topeka and suggests all other providers [that are] not cutting big checks to legislators should pay very close attention to coming legislation.”
Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 on Jan. 31. The group blasted the legislation, categorizing it as a job-killer that runs contrary to communications services expansion in the U.S. In a press release issued Feb. 3, the KCTA said the intent of the bill was to ensure cities are being appropriately scrutinized when using taxpayer dollars to compete with private broadband providers.
Caught in the crossfire was Sen. Julia Lynn, chair of the Kansas Senate Commerce Committee. SB 304 was introduced listing the Commerce Committee as sponsor. According to Federico, that was misinterpreted by many to mean some legislative shenanigans were occurring, when in fact, a majority of the legislative bills in Kansas are introduced that way, as opposed to featuring a legislator as a sponsor.
In response to a Government Technology inquiry about the bill, Lynn said: “I am communicating with representatives on each side, and it’s clear we need to gather more information. This is a long and deliberative process, and I expect to see changes as we move forward. I believe that all groups and individuals should continue to present facts on issues as it [moves] through the legislative process. I have not taken a position on the bill and will not do so until I’m satisfied we have had the opportunity to hear all of the facts. I have canceled the hearing for SB 304 in the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled for Feb. 4.”
Although the bill being pulled has provided a reprieve for Kansas community broadband advocates at the moment, at least one expert thinks the battle is just getting started.
“I don't think this is over,” Mitchell said. “I hope the Legislature rejects any attempt to limit who can build the networks Kansas desperately needs, but I fear the cable lobbyists have more tricks up their sleeves.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.