PR Watch, March 7, 2013
Members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the Georgia Legislature are pushing a bill to thwart locally-owned internet in underserved communities, an industry-sponsored effort that effectively reinforces the digital divide. A vote in the Georgia Assembly is scheduled for Thursday, March 7; if Georgia passes the bill it would be the twentieth state to eliminate community control over internet access.
As many as one in ten Americans cannot get internet connections that are fast enough for basic activities like streaming video or file sharing, largely because big internet providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable have refused to provide adequate service to communities where the population is too dispersed or too poor. As local economies become ever more dependent on internet access, though, this digital divide is leaving rural and low-income communities in the dust.
But local governments in places like Wilson, North Carolina and Thomasville, Georgia have taken matters into their own hands: they’ve built publicly owned high-speed internet to keep their communities viable in the 21st Century. These efforts have created jobs and helped save local economies, with businesses that rely on digital communication remaining in, or relocating to, the newly wired communities.
Competition from these locally owned providers has irritated the big “incumbent” internet companies, which had managed to put-off upgrading their networks because of near-monopoly power in many areas. Municipal broadband — which in many cases offers faster internet at a lower price — “forces companies to invest in their own infrastructure because communities are doing it better,” says Catharine Rice, President of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA).
Instead of responding to competition with improved services, the industry has responded by pushing a raft of bills to crush community and local broadband.
ALEC Bill Passed in 19 States
Since at least 2001 ALEC has been a conduit for internet providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to eliminate competition. As Bloomberg Business Week has described, the bill that became the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act was largely drafted by AT&T and other big internet providers, and was first passed in Utah in 2001, after the city of Provo created a municipal broadband system. The following summer, the bill was brought to ALEC’s Annual Meeting in Orlando and adopted as a “model” by the ALEC Telecommunications & Information Technology Task Force.
Since becoming a model bill, the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act has spread across the country. Nineteen states now have restrictive municipal broadband bills on the books, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
It passed most recently in North Carolina, where the exceptionally successful “Greenlight” program in Wilson had prompted incumbent internet providers like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Time Warner Cable to push the legislation starting in 2006. The bill had failed in previous sessions, but after control of the legislature shifted to Republicans in the 2010 elections and big telecom providers gave nearly $1.6 million in campaign contributions to North Carolina legislators over a five-year period, it finally became law in 2011.
In addition to campaign contributions and payments to ALEC, big internet providers have influenced legislators with valuable gifts. For example, AT&T was the second-highest contributor to the ALEC “scholarship” fund that pays for legislators’ flights and hotel rooms to ALEC meetings – a scheme that creates an environment for improper influence and would appear to violate many states’ ethics and lobbying laws. ALEC meetings are often held in fun cities like New Orleans and at swank hotels, and because state legislators earn, on average, about $46,000 a year, these destinations and resorts would otherwise be unaffordable.
Georgia Bill is Back
Georgia’s legislation may have been defeated in 2012 but a version is back again in 2013.
“We are not second class citizens because we decided to live in rural Georgia,” said Elberton, Georgia Mayor Larry Guest in testimony opposing the legislation.
“Georgia should be promoting a pro-business, inclusive approach to broadband deployment, especially in rural areas of the state,” he said.
The bill is again being opposed by businesses in the state, as well as tech companies like Google and Alcatel-Lucent, who argue that the private sector alone cannot build the nation’s public infrastructure. Their letter to Rep. Bill Parsons also notes the recent goal outlined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to offer one gigabit access nationwide by 2015.
HB282 has been modified from the 2012 version to exempt some existing broadband projects — perhaps to neuter opposition from businesses already benefitting from municipal broadband — but it still creates onerous burdens and thwarts new projects, perhaps even including those already underway.