Shifting political winds at the state level
In the presidential campaign, Secretary Hillary Clinton outlined a plan to improve infrastructure that included potentially more funding for broadband. Community broadband advocates were enlightened by this and foresaw likely involvement of public networks and public-private partnerships in the mix. The Donald Trump campaign conversely said very little about telecommunications. "Deals like this destroy democracy," said Trump in October of the anti-competitive nature of the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger. Some might extrapolate, based on this statement and the populace messaging of his campaign, he might embrace community broadband as consistent with that messaging. Or he might not. To gauge how well community broadband might fair in the post-election new political world order, it helps to consider collectively federal, state and local politics. Advocates must aggressively engage in politics at all levels if they hope to keep up with giant incumbents that expect the political winds to blow in their favor. On the federal scene, we shouldn’t expect broadband stimulus such as we saw in 2009. Despite promises that he would "drain the swamp" in Washington, the president-elect has staffed his transition team with lobbyists from K Street in D.C. It is probably safe to assume this includes incumbents’ lobbyists. With this type of influence and the resulting cabinet-level appointments, grant programs from agencies such as the FCC, the Rural Utilities Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development likely will heavily float to incumbents. Incumbents will use their influence to try to shut out funding for community broadband, wireless ISPs and smaller companies. Possibly cooperatives can get some pieces of the grant pies. Community broadband champions may be surprised by the actions of Republican governors and legislators who are late to the broadband party, as their Democratic counterparts have been driving community broadband for a while.
In the past few months, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has made broadband a main priority, and believes public, private and other network options should be considered. The state has an ongoing grant program to facilitate these types of partnerships, and the University of Wisconsin - Extension is hosting a conference in December on public private partnerships.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin inherited a broadband public-private partnership from his Democratic predecessor and is supportive of this first statewide network project in the country. In a statement he said, “Our administration is fully committed to the KentuckyWired project and we are excited at the possibilities before us as a result of its completion.” The governors’ offices in several states with restrictions on public-owned networks are proactively reviewing current and future broadband policies, and pro-public broadband advocates should have seats at the table.
At the state legislative level we are seeing an interesting tug of war play out between constituent interests and partisan politics. The increasing needs for economic development and K-12 education solutions that broadband can resolve are trumping the conservative orthodoxy that takes a dim view of government intervention.
A grass-roots drive led by Wilson, N.C., and two state legislators will take on that state’s GOP-induced prohibition against community broadband. In Tennessee and Alabama, several Republican legislators are gearing up to aggressively tackle their respective state prohibitions against public broadband. We should expect to see some major grass-roots efforts in Tennessee. Even in conservative states without prohibitions, legislators are showing receptivity to the role of public broadband.
All politics is local
As Congress legend Tip O’Neill said several decades ago, the skill and successes you bring to the local political scene is what propels you to success at the state or national level. Right now, community broadband is locally a bipartisan objective and because of that it should achieve its notable successes. In Colorado, there is Dolores County where 76 percent of voters supported Trump while in Boulder County, Clinton received 71 percent of the votes. Sibley County, Minn., supported Trump 3 to 1, yet 10 cities and 17 townships are using their tax dollars as collateral for a community network. The city of Madison, Wis., is urban and decidedly liberal, and the city owns its broadband infrastructure while providing access for private ISPs to deliver services. The Trump administration may or may not acknowledge or fund community broadband to any significant amount, but that local bipartisan appeal can be translated into substantial gains at the state and regional levels. The key to success in any type of legislative strategy is to heavily play the “local bipartisan” card and also play a wicked game of hardball politics. Broadband represents economic survival in the farmlands, in the ‘hood and a lot of places in between. Community broadband means education; it means telemedicine in places that incumbents stopped caring about long ago. And it’s not just about survival, it’s about taking advantage of new technologies to improve people’s lives. You need to build coalitions that vote for state senators or representatives who champion broadband policies that bring better, faster broadband to the community. Support your allies, convert opponents to allies, support your opponents’ opponents. Never forget legislators who side with incumbents at the expense of the community. Be aware of — and respond to — coalitions within the legislature that are good for broadband in the community, and create new coalitions where needed. Raise horse-trading to a blessed art form. While engaging your state legislatures, community stakeholders have to simultaneously focus on their Congress members and senators in Washington. Whether communities are urban or rural, the ability to rally bipartisan constituents who bring both election votes and campaign contributions is your best chance of getting community broadband a fair hearing on the national stage.