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Cities Take Proactive Approaches to Anti-Muni Broadband Legislators

Local elected leaders, administrators, public utility managers and community stakeholders are stepping up their advocacy game in response to recent legislative losses.

It’s crunch time in Missouri, where muni broadband supporters are seeking to defeat SB 186 — a bill that eliminates communities’ rights to build public-owned broadband networks, effectively crippling jurisdictions' economies. Though the passage might be uncertain, there's a chance that incumbents and their allies may slip the bill’s text in unrelated legislation.

For years, incumbent telecom and cable companies trying to preserve their anti-competition fiefdoms have viewed state legislatures as the best hunting grounds. Given that few constituents know their legislators or the issues they tackle, incumbents need only influence two or three busloads of representatives in any statehouse.

But those who care about broadband — including local elected leaders, administrators, public utility managers, community stakeholders and others — are stepping up their advocacy game in response to recent legislative losses. Despite a big win for community broadband forces in Virginia, Tennessee appears to be headed to a Pyrrhic victory, North Carolina only offers a sliver hope and supporters were defeated in Alabama.

Virginia, however, holds the seeds of victory for other states.

PR Tips the Legislative Scales

There are several aspects to public relations, with media relations being a key element. In February, Virginia’s broadband stakeholders and advocates demonstrated effective media relations and why it’s important.

A proposed bill from Virginia Delegate Kathy Byron would have nixed municipal networks statewide — but media relations saved the day. A month of intense activity produced dozens of stories, editorials and op-eds. Several publications interviewed Brette Arbogast, director of technology for the Appomattox County School District, about the district's public-owned network, a state success story.

“Media coverage of the municipal broadband issues has been fantastic,” Arbogast said. “I did lots of interviews after the bill came out. I also called and emailed state legislators, local officials, congressman, everybody I could think of to get their support.”

And it appears that this “all hands on deck” strategy by the media and the communities worked, because the bill was defeated.

The secret to success using this tactic is to conduct regular media relations for months, prior to any bill being introduced in the next year’s legislative session. Local publications, radio and TV in Virginia had run favorable stories in the past, so it was easy to mobilize media support at the first hint of danger. Furthermore, most municipal networks are success stories as they pay off their financing and report high customer satisfaction levels.

And Missouri is no exception; according to the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, the state has five muni networks and a couple of cities with broadband plans waiting in the wings.

Springfield's public network is one of the oldest in the country, and North Kansas City has citywide fiber and gigabit speeds. Marshall as citywide fiber, and West Plains built a network to offer services to businesses as a way to preserve jobs. Girardeau offers dark fiber and free Wi-Fi. There also are a number of co-op-owned networks, including Co-Mo Electric Co-op, which is one of the most expansive community networks in the country.

So in the next 30 days, until the legislative session ends, Missouri citizens must relentlessly call their legislators and local media outlets to make the case: “Don’t mess with success — kill the bill."

PR Is More than the Media

Whether or not a state has municipal network restrictions, any city that has even small aspirations for building a network should have a 12-month PR plan. In addition to the threat of prohibitions, many state legislatures are pursuing an array of broadband policies, so cities should get in front of these discussions.

PR is broadly defined as actions taken to influence a group of people with whom you do business. State legislatures influence cities’ ability to access money, resources and permissions. Subsequently, design a PR plan with the goal of influencing legislators’ hearts and minds regarding community broadband.

At one time, New Mexico co-ops were forbidden from providing broadband services. Kit Carson Electric Co-op began a systematic campaign to build local political support that was rolled up into state political support.

“We started with education and face time with elected officials at all local levels,” said CEO Luis Reyes Jr. “The co-op also got involved with economic development projects in the three counties we serve, and developed a track record of success stories.”

By supporting projects that directly brought jobs to the communities, Kit Carson built a strong credibility. They then educated the communities on how broadband would bring jobs to the area. With the support built among constituents and elected officials, the co-op generated 1,000 letters of support for their broadband plans, which they leveraged with state legislators to get the restrictive law removed. Furthermore, Kit Carson created allies by partnering with lawmakers to help legislators implement their economic development initiatives.

Minnesota jurisdictions have to pass a referendum in order to be allowed to build their own networks, which is a surmountable requirement. But to avoid the type of unpleasantness that Virginia endured, the Minnesota Broadband Coalition proactively hosted a “Minnesota Broadband on the Hill Day.” Over 80 community broadband planners and stakeholders met with 40 state legislators for a day of panels, presentations and tours in the statehouse. This type of direct engagement that’s done on a regular basis helps communities maintain their place at the table.

Though West Virginia doesn’t have any municipal broadband restrictions, advocates there worked with legislators to produce House Bill 3093, which would allow a pilot program to form cooperative associations of 50 or more “qualified person engaged in the use of Internet services.” The co-ops would be allowed to borrow money and required to abide by 15 pages of rules spelled out in the bill.

The bill still has to wind its way through the state Senate, but win, lose or draw, the effort shows creativity and the willingness to try new approaches. We need to see more communities and legislators step out of the box and away from incumbent lobbyist pressure. It’s good that states are using PR to try to beat anti-muni network bills. But it will help in the future to use that PR clout to proactively create good broadband opportunities.

Craig Settles assists cities and co-ops with business planning for broadband and telehealth. He has surveyed economic development professionals nationwide about the impact of telehealth and community broadband, and offers guidance for federal grant proposals for broadband, telehealth, or other digital projects.
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