(TNS) — Last year a legislative panel unanimously rejected a bill drafted by a secretive group that would have made it nearly impossible for communities to build their own high-speed Internet networks, even when cable and telephone companies declined to do so. Now, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is co-sponsoring legislation in Congress that aims to make sure there isn’t a repeat of the measure and to overturn laws passed in recent years in 17 other states.
“We should be rolling out the red carpet to communities that are trying to meet the big challenge of having high-speed Internet, rather than have the state try to restrict them on behalf of the big utilities and cable companies,” said Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District. “It seems very anti-American and anti-entrepreneurial spirit.”
“It’s very likely that this kind of (state) bill could get introduced in Maine again, and the sooner we have federal protection against that happening, the better off we will be,” she said.
The Maine bill rejected by lawmakers last May was modeled on one that’s been advanced in statehouses across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group that claims to be a nonpartisan professional association for legislators but is funded almost entirely by member corporations, which use it to write laws member lawmakers can call their own. It was introduced by ALEC’s Maine state co-chairman, Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram, and mirrored a model bill created by ALEC’s telecom committee, whose members include Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Cox and Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum).
The bill – which would have imposed numerous funding, reporting, and legal restrictions and obligations on municipalities that tried to create or partner with private companies to create their own network – was opposed by a range of towns and the Maine Municipal Association, and was voted down 12-0 by a legislative panel.
Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of Biddeford-based Internet provider GWI, opposed the bill and says its defeat reflected “the understanding in Maine on both sides of the aisle that such restrictions on the freedom of towns is a bad idea.” But he has little doubt a similar one might come back. “There are municipal networks operating in Maine now, and those efforts could put those investments at risk.”
Maine ranked 49th of the 50 states in a 2014 Gizmodo survey of Internet quality, better only than Montana. Using data from consultants McKinsey and Company, US News & World Report ranks Maine 44th in terms of download speeds, far behind Massachusetts (rank No. 1) and New Hampshire (No. 7).
The congressional legislation, the Community Broadband Act of 2018, prohibits states from adopting laws, regulations, and requirements that prohibit or effectively prohibit public providers from creating high-speed telecommunications capabilities. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., it is co-sponsored by Pingree and six other lawmakers, all of them Democrats.
Mary Bottari, deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin, a watchdog group that’s focused on ALEC, says the bill is a reasonable reaction to the agenda of the organization’s major corporate telecommunications members. “These companies are relentless and they will come back and back and back again because they want to make sure every neighborhood is available for a monopoly-based operation,” she said. “There’s no principle behind ALEC’s position. They are for whatever the corporations want.”
An official at ALEC defended its model bill in a written response to the Press Herald on the grounds that state governments had to protect municipal ones from harming themselves and taxpayers, but condemned Pingree’s bill because it “interferes with the relationship between state and local government and with the relationship between the local government officials and the citizens who elect state leadership.”
The official, Director of Communications and Technology Jonathon Hauenschild, said: “A municipality should realize that it does not have the institutional knowledge, or experience, necessary to run an advanced communications service” and that the decision to invest in one is “complex.”
“The state has the responsibility to ensure a municipality has tried all other options before launching a municipal network including public-private partnerships,” Hauenschild added. “When a municipal network is the only way an unserved community will be connected, the state has the responsibility to ensure transparency and that taxpayer funds are used in the most responsible manner possible.”
Wadsworth – who ultimately voted against his own legislation in committee – did not respond to an interview request. The organization has solid ties in Maine. State Sen. Andre Cushing of Newport, who was Republican whip when the Maine bill was introduced, sits on ALEC’s national board, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and Sen. James Hamper of Hiram served on the telecom committee as recently as 2011, the year the nonprofit Common Cause obtained and published a list of the organization’s member lawmakers, information ALEC doesn’t disclose.
The new congressional bill’s prospects are unclear, Pingree says. On one hand, it has only Democratic sponsors, but on the other she says many of her Republican colleagues from rural and agricultural districts are extremely concerned about broadband access, which is becoming increasingly essential to the operation of farms, small businesses, and everyday commerce.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican representing Maine’s 2nd District, said the congressman had not yet studied the measure, but noted he was a member of the bipartisan rural broadband caucus and had signed on to a letter with Pingree and others asking President Trump to include funding for rural broadband expansion in any future infrastructure proposal.
“Access to quality and affordable broadband is a top priority of Congressman Poliquin and he is ready to work with anyone to expand broadband access in rural Maine,” spokesman Brendan Conley said via email.
©2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.