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2013-03-04

Municipal Broadband Networks Bridge the Digital Divide as Telecom Industry Tries to Block Them

Guests

Chris Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is a national expert on community broadband and recently co-authored a report, "The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned the Competition in North Carolina."

Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, which represents Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. For the past decade, she has been working to plan and deploy local broadband systems. For four years, she led the effort to block an industry-sponsored anti-municipal broadband bill, which ultimately passed in 2012.

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As many as one in 10 Americans cannot get Internet connections fast enough for common online activities such as watching video. Many communities have responded to this digital divide by creating their own municipal broadband networks as an alternative to the slow services offered by cable and telephone companies in order to gain equal access to education, healthcare and even jobs. One example of success is Thomasville, Georgia, which has been connecting people for more than a decade. But these efforts could soon be blocked. Some 19 states have passed laws to stop these communities from making such investments, and Georgia could be next. We are joined by Chris Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He recently co-authored a report, "The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned the Competition in North Carolina." Catharine Rice is the president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, which represents Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. She led the effort to block an industry-sponsored bill on municipal broadband investment in North Carolina, which passed last year after Republicans came to power in the state, including a longtime friend of the Koch brothers, Art Pope, who is now the governor’s budget director. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t usually broadcast live from movie theaters, but that’s what we’re doing right here in Silver Spring at the AFI Silver, which is a well-known movie theater here. But today and tomorrow it’s been transformed into the Freedom to Connect conference. It is here in Silver Spring, Maryland. And we’re going to be livestreaming this conference from the moment we end our broadcast today through the day until 5:00 today and Tuesday, tomorrow.

Imagine paying $40 per gallon for gas when people in a nearby town pay $4. Well, a similar disparity is commonplace when it comes to paying for Internet access here in the United States. Our rate of broadband access trails some former Soviet-bloc countries such as Romania. In fact, as many as one in 10 Americans cannot get Internet connections that are fast enough for common online activities like watching video.

Many communities have responded to this digital divide by creating their own municipal broadband networks as an alternative to the slow services offered by cable and telephone companies. Chattanooga, Tennessee, has built the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber optic network, which offers all of its residents access to a one-gig connection, at speeds a hundred times faster than a regular cable connection and 500 times faster than your typical DSL. This means equal access to education, healthcare, even jobs. Other examples of success include a rural area of Georgia that’s been connecting people for more than a decade. But these efforts could soon be blocked. Some 19 states have passed laws to stop these communities from making such investments, and now Georgia could be next.

To find out more, we’re joined by two guests. Chris Mitchell is with us, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is a national expert on community broadband, recently co-authored a report, "The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned the Competition in North Carolina."

And Catharine Rice is with us, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, which represents Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. She led the effort to block an industry-sponsored [bill] on municipal broadband investment in North Carolina. The measure ultimately passed last year after Republicans came to power in the state, including a longtime friend of the Koch brothers, Art Pope, who is now the governor’s budget director.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with you, Catharine Rice. Explain what is happening in Georgia right now.

CATHARINE RICE: Well, sad to say, in Georgia they’re experiencing the same thing that we had experienced in North Carolina only a few years ago, which is an attempt by the telecommunication carriers to stop municipalities from providing broadband to their people.

AMY GOODMAN: What is broadband?

CATHARINE RICE: Well, I know what the companies would like them to believe broadband is and what they think—

AMY GOODMAN: Community broadband.

CATHARINE RICE: But community broadband is the concept that the community gets involved in building the infrastructure to bring broadband to their residents and their businesses.

AMY GOODMAN: Why aren’t companies doing this?

CATHARINE RICE: Well, they’ve admitted in public that in a lot of these areas they feel that there are not enough homes per mile or that the people don’t make enough money, and so it’s really not worth their investment to bring broadband to those communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So how does the community do it?

CATHARINE RICE: Well, it takes a long time, actually. They typically study the environment very carefully. They have town-hall meetings. They ask their own citizens and their businesses how they feel about investing in this kind of infrastructure. And then they make the step. Typically, they also talk to the incumbents and ask them if they would like to partner on the infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: "Incumbents" meaning?

CATHARINE RICE: AT&T, Time Warner Cable.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Chris, how does this work? In fact, communities are not competing with these companies, because they don’t want to do it.

CHRIS MITCHELL: Right. The thing to keep in mind is that we still have over 2,000 communities that provide their own electricity. So, this isn’t totally weird. We have a situation in which, in a number of communities, we have the equivalent of a dirt road, and we have the private companies are providing a dirt road, and a community says, "We would like access to the interstate." And the company says, "No, the dirt road is good enough. You should not be allowed to choose if an interstate is right for you."

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happens then? Tell us the map in the United States of who has community broadband and what the battles have been about.

CHRIS MITCHELL: Well, this is a—it’s been a pretty bipartisan show, so it’s interesting that most of the networks that we see are actually in areas that vote Republican. It’s often rural areas. The largest one is Chattanooga, so we don’t see the major metro areas doing it. But our map shows 342 communities that provide some level of access. Sometimes that’s to everyone in the community, and sometimes it’s just to local businesses, to make sure that they’re able to do everything they need in the modern economy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what has happened. What is the fight back?

CHRIS MITCHELL: The fight back is that communities have built these networks. They’re incredibly successful. They provide next-generation speeds. They typically have lower rates, and they don’t raise them constantly. And so, they take market share from companies that have very powerful lobbyists, and particularly in state legislatures. So, we haven’t seen a lot of effort at the national level to ban these networks, but in individual states we see AT&T, Time Warner Cable, other major companies flooding state legislators with talking points that say it’s unfair, these communities are using tax dollars, every one of these networks fails, and a number of other things. But groups like ours don’t have the ability to respond to every state legislator and to get to set the record straight. So the state legislators often make poor decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: Catharine, talk about Thomasville, Georgia.

CATHARINE RICE: Well, Thomasville, Georgia, is a fascinating situation. It’s a community that I think has somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000 homes, and in—pretty rural in nature. And for the last 14 years, Thomasville, Georgia, has had fiber to the home. So it’s probably one of the longer-standing fiber-to-the-home systems. And in response to a lot of these accusations by the big companies that these systems are an abuse of taxpayer rights, or taxes are being misused, Thomasville, Georgia’s situation has been so successful that they have eliminated local property tax. So—

AMY GOODMAN: How?

CATHARINE RICE: Simply because it’s keeping the money local. It’s generating more revenue locally. Things are being done much more efficiently. And in fact, it’s also raising the quality of life in Thomasville, Georgia, beyond the expectations of most people. One of the examples that was given by the mayor is that a local doctor, who was outside of the service area of their system, called them up and desperately asked if he could be given fiber to the home, which they—where they ran a fiber out there, and he could finally upload and download X-rays and contact other specialists from his home. So, for Thomasville, it’s allowed them to keep world-class healthcare, and for a rural area, that’s pretty significant in today’s world.

AMY GOODMAN: Officials from several rural Georgia cities traveled to Atlanta last week to oppose House Bill 282, which would limit investment in Internet networks. Elberton Mayor Larry Guest argued the bill would hurt economic development. He said, quote, "Georgia should be promoting a pro-business, inclusive approach to broadband deployment, especially in rural areas of the state. ... We have to do everything we can to attract jobs. ... High speed access is essential to us. ... We are not second class citizens because we decided to live in rural Georgia." Catharine?

CATHARINE RICE: Well, this is the same story that we are seeing in a lot of the Southeast. These are communities who experienced the effects of globalization probably 30, 35 years ago. And as a result, they lost—they saw their communities losing their tobacco, their textile and their manufacturing base overseas. So the local officials did what they’re supposed to do, which is to evaluate the system and figure out how can they keep jobs in the community, how can they keep the quality of life up. And what they realized, as Chris said, is that they needed to build the new roads into their communities so that the world could tap into their labor pool. As a result, they realized they needed to develop fiber to the home. And that started the process.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, if you could talk about North Carolina, your experience there, and Art Pope, the Koch brothers’ ally there.

CATHARINE RICE: Well, when Time Warner Cable found out that Wilson, North Carolina, built its own system, they went right to the state Legislature and passed—and tried to get bills passed for four years. On the fifth year, there was a big change in the control of the state Senate and the state House. The Republicans took control, and the bill—we were successful until that year, and then the bill flew through.

The bill’s sponsor, on her own website, listed herself as the finance manager for the John Locke Foundation, which is 80 percent funded by a fellow named Art Pope, who’s very good friends with the Koch brothers and pretty much funded the takeover of our state by the new Republican Party. And she sponsored the bill, which was actually written by Time Warner Cable and ALEC, which—

AMY GOODMAN: ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

CATHARINE RICE: —which effectively prohibits the municipalities in our state from providing their own broadband services.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Chris, on the significance of the community broadband movement?

CHRIS MITCHELL: Sure. I think the thing to keep in mind is that community broadband does not just benefit the community that build its own network; it puts a pressure on all the other networks. And so, if Comcast or Time Warner Cable wants to raise its rates in a community that doesn’t have it, or they don’t want to upgrade their speeds, that community can look at some of these networks that have been built by communities themselves, and they know what they should be getting and they know what’s possible. And so, we don’t need every community to build its own network to make a big difference, but what we do demand is that every community have the authority to make this decision for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Chris Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. He’s with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, national expert on community broadband, authored a report, "The Empire Lobbies Back," and we will link to that. And thank you very much to Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, who represents Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

That does it for our show. We’re going to be livestreaming all day at democracynow.org from the Freedom to Connect conference here.

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