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Like Politics, All Broadband Policy Is Local (Contributed)

Federal and state policymakers continue to ignore, weaken and, in some instances, block local input and control of broadband. This needs to stop if the country is to ever have viable, affordable broadband for all.

Even though community broadband has proven itself incredibly valuable and viable, broadband is taking a beating in some areas of the country thanks to what has become a siege against municipal broadband by the large telecom incumbents, including AT&T, Comcast and others. This effort has led to a backlash against muni broadband in some states, depriving communities of a well-tested option when it comes to high-speed connectivity to the Internet and the digital economy.

The only way we can fight back is to start with reliable, locally generated data from those in the trenches. This is critically important. Nobody knows about local economies like economic development professionals, community groups, elected officials, co-ops and other local organizations.

Right now, several crucial federal and state broadband policy decisions are being made that will benefit from local economic expertise, input and advocacy. Who better to help inform those decisions than local economic development professionals? If communities don’t have this expertise at the table in Washington, D.C., and state capitals, local broadband could lose big. So, if they won’t seat you at the table, bring a chair.       

Federal Broadband Policy Needs Local Input 

In May, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., co-chairs of the Senate Broadband Caucus, reintroduced the Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act. Since the federal government does not produce current, reliable statistics on the economic impact of broadband on the U.S. economy, the act designates agencies to gather far-ranging statistics on broadband; in addition, they “may consult with” various national and local stakeholders.

It’s great to require these agencies to gather economic data, but they should start by requiring local communities to answer this question: What do they need broadband to accomplish, and how will meeting these needs impact local economies?

Let’s require local governments, community organizations, economic development groups and the citizens who own the problem of poor broadband service to assess, measure and form solutions to those problems. Let’s limit federal and state governments to providing the money and other resources to support local solutions under strict guidelines and accountability measures. 

As part of this needs assessment, we need to ask the right questions: What is community broadband’s impact on local businesses, personal economic development and low-income individuals who want to become entrepreneurs? Can broadband attract homeowners or reduce the homework gap? Could community broadband deliver telehealth, slow down hospital closures, attract doctors and nurses, and eliminate unnecessary visits to emergency rooms in rural and low-income urban areas?

The Federal Communications Commission just released the second draft of its 2019 Broadband Deployment Report after the first draft was torpedoed by the revelation that key calculations were based on flawed data. Congress mandated the reports to determine if broadband deployments are keeping pace with the needs of residents and businesses, and empowered the FCC to light regulatory fires under the telecom giants to encourage them to keep up community needs.

Although the second draft is better, many broadband advocates and experts feel its conclusions do not mesh with reality. "Many may argue that the FCC came to the wrong conclusion; others will say that it is correct. But the point is: How can the FCC come to any conclusion when it knows the information it is basing its decision on is flawed?" Benton Foundation (a nonprofit broadband advocacy group) Executive Director Adrianne Furniss told Multichannel News. The answer is clear: Turn to local economic experts for the best and most truthful answers.

The Threat from the FCC and Lobby Influence at the State Level

Years ago, the FCC set aside spectrum specifically for education through the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) as it’s known today. Last year, the FCC announced it’s considering the privatization of EBS despite the fact that numerous communities have expressed their support for EBS, which has provided broadband services where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. 

Advocates of privatization advanced the idea that commercializing this pioneering service will produce the widest deployment of broadband at the lowest possible cost, and commercial interests will better address the homework gap and the digital divide. The FCC has intensified the rhetoric. To counter privatization of EBS, reliable, community-sourced data will be needed to show its effectiveness as a public entity.

“We have been marinated in a corporate culture that believes only a Fortune 500 company is able to deal with high tech,” observed a true broadband pioneer, the late Wally Bowen, founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN). “However, quite a few communities hold the power to produce for themselves that which large incumbents fail to deliver — blazingly fast and affordable Internet access.”

Ongoing battles in one-third of the states are underway as lobbyists for the telecom giants ooze throughout the cogs of state government, gumming up the broadband policy machinery with their prohibitions and regressive legislative mandates. These mandates are based on two flawed arguments: 1) Local public entities that want to build and operate their own broadband service don’t know what they’re doing and will fail; and 2) local entities should not be unfairly competing with the private sector.

There’s plenty of local data to refute the first weak claim, and the second is patently absurd. The earliest community broadband networks such as Thomasville, Ga.; Glasgow, Ky.; and Danville, Va., had economic development as a main driver. It’s still a leading driver for over 700 municipalities and counties that have built jurisdiction-wide and partial-area networks. 

One of the economic benefits from Thomasville’s broadband network was that it helped to eliminate property taxes. Danville launched their nDanville network to help them reduce the town’s 19 percent unemployment rate. The network was instrumental in attracting new businesses that resulted in lowering the town’s unemployment rate to 9 percent within a few years. Glasgow’s public utility, Glasgow EPB, invested and recouped $5 million after launching their network.

“We wanted to reduce the amount of money leaving the local economy destined for the shareholders of a giant telecom company,“ said William Ray, CEO of EPB. “We also wanted to bring new services to our rural community that would otherwise be many years coming to Glasgow.”

Many community broadband networks are run by municipalities, public utilities and electric co-ops, and some are owned directly by citizens. Community networks, including small Internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless ISPs (WISPs), are locally owned, their revenues stay local and their mission is to help their constituents and members. These are the experts in local economies who should be at the heart of any federal or state broadband policymaking.

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.