- March 8, 2013 02:18pm EST
Georgia lawmakers this week shot down efforts to effectively ban municipal broadband networks in the state.
By a vote of 70 to 94, members of the Georgia House rejected HB 282, which would have greatly restricted a city’s ability to start its own broadband network. According to the bill text, cities would only have been allowed to provide broadband service to “unserved” communities, or areas where the FCC’s National Broadband Map showed that no broadband service (or 3 Mbps) was available. Existing networks would have been able to continue operations.
Bill sponsor Rep. Mark Hamilton, a Republican, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it’s wasteful to spend tax dollars on a broadband network when private companies are doing the same thing. But the paper also cited Hamilton’s Republican colleague, Rep. Jay Powell, who said he could not get a major ISP to deliver broadband to his community, leaving it woefully behind in the digital economy.
City-run broadband networks have been a topic of conversation for years. In some rural areas of the U.S., major Internet service providers have declined to build out their networks due to high costs, so cities have stepped in to provide municipally backed broadband. But a number of these networks overlap in areas where private companies already provide Internet service, prompting complaints from ISPs.
As noted by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch, 19 states have restrictions on municipal networks, most recently in North Carolina.
AT&T and Windstream are among the ISPs in Georgia that supported the bill. In a statement, Eric Einhorn, Windstream’s senior vice president of government affairs, said the company “does not believe that it is good public policy for government-owned networks to overbuild and undermine existing networks that have been constructed with significant private sector investment.”
“To achieve faster broadband speeds, the more efficient approach is to augment existing networks, rather than build altogether new ones,” he continued. “We were pleased to see that many Georgia legislators share this view of public policy, and we look forward to ongoing discussions regarding the appropriate role of government-owned networks.”
AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, a coalition of tech firms – including Google – wrote to the chairman of the Georgia House’s energy, utilities, and telecom committee to oppose the bill.
“The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life,” they wrote. “HB 282 would prevent public broadband providers from building the sorely needed advanced broadband infrastructure that will stimulate local businesses development, foster work force retraining, and boost employment in economically underachieving areas.”
Free Press Action Fund policy director Matt Wood championed the Georgia vote. “Everyone is tired of waiting on incumbent providers to connect rural and low-income communities,” he said in a statement. “Municipal broadband can provide better service at lower prices, and the phone and cable giants should stop strong-arming state legislators to prevent local communities from making that choice for themselves.”
Wood and PRWatch said the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is behind many of the anti-municipal broadband bills that have made their way through state legislatures.
ALEC has a Communications and Technology Task Force that “strongly believes in the awesome power of broadband to foster economic growth and innovation,” said John Stephenson, the task force’s director. “To that end, the Task Force has developed model policies and supported efforts designed to encourage investment in and promotion of broadband adoption such as clearing regulatory red tape and low-cost Internet training.”
Some local governments, however, “have gotten into the business of broadband in already served areas, directly competing with the private sector, without fully understanding the costs or risks involved, which has in many cases threatened private investment and jeopardized local government finances, thereby putting taxpayers at risk of lower bond ratings and higher taxes,” Stephenson continued. “The Task Force believes that if local governments believe they must build their own networks, they must compete fairly, account transparently, provide notice, and get voter approval like other public projects.”
The Georgia bill takes a different approach than the ALEC task force, but it asked “good questions about the costs of government-owned broadband and whether local governments’ current policy approach for broadband is the right one,” he concluded.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Eastern with comment from Windstream and ALEC.
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