As we have discussed in the past, broadband is an essential component of economic development, long-term energy savings and health care cost containment. With studies showing economic growth happening disproportionately in communities with strong broadband deployment, the lack of affordable and accessible broadband Internet in much of the United States is unacceptable.
Since federal broadband policy is not working, states have taken steps to determine which areas and residents are under-served and created policies to make affordable and reliable broadband Internet a reality for their citizens. For example, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine,Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina,Ohio, South Carolina, and Vermont have created new bodies to focus on broadband. On the other hand, some states have adopted "state video franchising" legislation that has undercut local protections without creating the needed state regulations to bridge the digital divide. This Stateside Dispatch will highlight new state initiatives that are addressing these challenges of mapping broadband access, increasing broadband deployment in the states, and what standards video franchising bills should meet to maintain essential consumer protections.
Today, there is a digital divide between people who do and people who do not have access to - and the capability to use - broadband Internet. Too many Americans, especially those in rural areas or low-income households, do not have any Internet access. Since the federal government's data on who has Internet access is notoriously incomplete, the first step to providing broadband Internet to under-served residents is for states to create broadband maps, to track broadband penetration levels, and determine where broadband Internet access is lacking.
Only a handful of states have attempted to map broadband service. The most publicized model for bringing broadband connectivity to rural and under-served areas is ConnectKentucky. According to comments by the CWA, "ConnectKentucky produced the first comprehensive Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based county-by-county inventory of existing broadband infrastructure and service availability." ConnectKentucky has now rebranded itself as Connected Nation and implementing its Kentucky model in multiple states. States such as Maine, Arizona, Illinois, Tennesse, Washington, and West Virginia, have or are considering utilizing the Connect Nations model.
Some criticisms of the ConnectKentucky model include that it has overstated results, that the data it produces is not fully in the public domain, and the measurements of "broadband access" do not fully distinguish between fast broadband and bare minimum broadband. To address these concerns and to counteract the fact that broadband providers exercise large degrees of control over the mapping, state legislatures need to create clear regulatory guidelines in new legislation to assure that carriers give more detailed information and that the public has access to the data collected.
Other states have improved upon Kentucky's model and utilized more granular data to map broadband infrastructure. This more granular data provides a more accurate picture of who has broadband access in their states and how fast that access really is:
Another useful model, from the 2007 session, was Maryland'sHouse Bill 1069. This bill, if enacted, would have required any company offering high-speed broadband (defined at a more realistic level of at least 768kbps) to report down to the zip code-plus 4 level who has access; the percentage of households that subscribe to the provider's broadband service; the upload and download data transmission speeds that are available to customers in the broadband provider's service territory; the average price per megabyte; and report new services and upgrades to existing broadband services.
Once under-served populations are determined, states must deploy broadband Internet to these individuals. Despite the fact that the Internet has become a standard medium for everyday communication and transactions, most states do not have strong broadband infrastructures and service providers are hesitant to expand their networks to non-traditional sectors that may not be as profitable.
The Electronic Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Act (ETOPIA), is a model of broadband Internet deployment that garnered a lot of attention when proposed in West Virginia. The state legislature passed the ETOPIA bill, Senate Bill 748, but the Governor vetoed the legislation. If enacted, the bill would have created a think-tank to explore the best-practices for creating public-private broadband partnerships. The state would then implement these partnerships for the benefit of the its citizens and the economy. The bill emphasized how a strong broadband infrastructure would lead to advancements in telemedicine and e-learning. Additionally, the bill would have given local governments the necessary authority to create public-private partnerships to provide broadband network services. The state would issue bonds to initially fund the technology infrastructure, and it seems a long-term goal of the ETOPIA legislation is for the infrastructure to become a revenue stream and therefore the infrastructure will not have to be maintained by state tax dollars.
State legislators are not the only actors focusing on expanding broadband Internet on a state level. Some governors have taken steps to address the digital divide, issuing executive orders focused on creating affordable and accessible broadband Internet for all state residents. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Broadband Task Force to "implement proposals to bridge the digital divide"; Illinois Governor Blagojevich created a Broadband Deployment Council; Ohio Governor Strickland signed an executive order to "coordinate and expand access to the state's broadband data network," and to establish the Ohio Broadband Council and the Broadband Ohio Network; and New York Governor Spitzer recently announced the importance that he places on developing statewide broadband. With Governors making broadband deployment a priority and establishing funding to address the digital divide, there is plenty of room for state legislators to make real inroads in expanding broadband infrastructure and capitalizing upon emerging technology.
States Consider Options in Extending Broadband Access
Funding Mapping and Deployment
Recently, states have come to see the Internet as a necessary utility like water and electricity or as critical infrastructure like roads and ports. Just like any other form of infrastructure, a broadband infrastructure will require funding.
Some states, those with less available resources than California, have successfully enacted broadband mapping and deployment programs, by appropriating money from both general state funds and from penalties levied on telecommunication carriers/providers for state law infringements.
In Kentucky, broadband mapping and deployment began under unusual circumstances. The Public Service Commission decided to use money that BellSouth owed, because they had made more money then they were permitted to, for broadband build-out. After the first evaluation period, it was decided that the program should be continued.
Other states have utilized matching funds as a way to spur investment in broadband. For example, in 2006 Idaho created a $5 millionmatching fund to encourage broadband deployment.
Regulatory Standards for Video Franchise Legislation
In theory, statewide video franchises, which create a single statewide simplified process of offering video services, could have benefits for the public, such as increasing competition. Unfortunately, however, the legislation enacted so far does not include strong enough consumer protections or broadband deployment requirements. The public services lost by state video franchising bills, outweigh any potential gains that might result due to increased competition.
Under state video franchises, providers need to secure only one permit instead of a permit for each individual community. Therefore, state video franchising takes control away from the local municipalities, reduces consumer protections, and undermines local deployment requirements. In the past, municipalities have leveraged permits for cable companies to use public rights-of-way, as a means to demand carriers supply certain public interest services. States have not taken the same initiative to negotiate franchise agreements which protect necessary public services that are in the public interest. At the close of the 2007 legislative session approximately 15 states had enacted some form of video franchising bills. While some of these bills offered limited PEG (public access and government channels) or build-out requirements, all fell short of adequately protecting the public interest.
The major public interest elements that should be included in any video franchising bill are protection of PEG channels; broadband access provided for certain public institutions, like schools; strong build-out requirements; and ongoing regulation of the industry by state authorities to ensure that the entire community, not just the wealthy are offered service. If states must consider state franchising bills, they should set higher consumer protections standards in the legislation.
The best model video franchise bill proposed so far is New York'sAO1423, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, has adequate build-out standards, requiring companies receiving statewide franchises to make service available to large communities across New York within 3 years and to small communities within 6 years. The bill would also protect certain municipal regulatory powers, strong local franchise fees, a set number of PEG channels, provide other high-speed Internet services for local communities, and establish network neutrality provisions.
After years of neglect by federal leaders, states are taking action on broadband policy but they need to leverage opportunities for success: mandatory mapping of what broadband services are really available to their citizens, requiring real build-out requirements in any video franchising laws, and creating comprehensive state plans for broadband expansion.