As part of the off year elections, 32 communities in Iowa voted on referenda on whether to explore having a muni broadband system. 17 of the 32 voted to go forward, with 15 voting not to explore the option. Given that Mediacom and Qwest, the incumbent cable and telco companies spent about $1.4 million to defeat the measures, while proponents of the measure spent only a few thousand dollars, that’s pretty good.
Meanwhile, developments in Michigan and Pennsylvania below.
One of the important things for the upcomming 2006 election is that, if muni broadband is an example, voters are starting to use their gray matter again and look past labels.
Muni broadband keeps getting attacked using all the usual big business buzzwords that voters (especially in “red states”) are supposed to be conditioned to respond to like Pavlov dogs. They are told allowing local government to porvide broadband services is “socialized internet” and “wasting tax payer money.” Government can’t do something this complicated, and shouldn’t try, because it will just get in the way of the uber-efficient private sector which — now that the FCC has deregulated broadband — should be rarin’ to deploy cheap ubiquitous broadband everywhere.
But voters ain’t buyin’. They look around and see that big companies concerned with the bottom line are unlikely to want to deploy in their towns and neighborhoods anytime soon. When this stuff comes up in the legislature, it generally gets shot down. And even where it has passed, legislators may have second thoughts.
The latest failure of the telco/cable campaign to outlaw local governments from providing services to their residents and businesses comes from Michigan. Michigan has jumped on the bandwagon to deregulate its telephone services. As usual, someone introduced an amendment to prohibit local governments from providing broadband services in the name of free enterprise, fiscal responsibility, etc. etc.
In this case, the incumbent stalking horse was Rep. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek). The amendment would have proposed a “Pennsylvania-model” would have required local governments to seek two bids from the private sector and wait over a year for response before going it on their own.
The final compromise that passed allows local governments to go ahead on their own if a solicitation brings less than three bids, and does not impose any time limits. The local municipal organizations say that the final version of the bill, now signed by the governor, does not impose any serious barrier to providing local broadband.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania may have second thoughts about its own ban. On November 7, the PA Senate Communications Committee held a hearing on whether to extend the deadline for “grandfathered” muni systems. The legislation PA adopted at the end of 2004 gave local governments until the end of 2005 to get plans in place for a muni system or be subject to the requirement that they ask local providers for bids first and then wait 14 months for response. A number of local governments would like to get in on the grandfather clause, but have trouble meeting the deadline.
A year makes a heck of a difference. One can hope that the PA legislature will realize that giving local governments more options on how to serve their local residents and businesses does no one any harm, and may do a great deal of good. But I take a certain pleasure in observing that rather than this being the year incumbents ran rough-shod over local governments in state legislatures, as they confidently expected they would do, that voters may reconsider the ban that began muni broadband movement. More importantly, it may mark the year voters realized they could take back their democracy and make it work again.
Stay tuned . . .