Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Kansas bill would outlaw local-government broadband, a source of high-speed rural Internet

A bill to outlaw broadband service by local governments in Kansas was supposed to go before a Senate committee today, but was postponed because of poor weather conditions. "Senate Bill 304, introduced by a lobbyist for the cable TV industry, would prohibit cities and counties from building public broadband networks and providing Internet service to their businesses and citizens," Dion Lefler reports for The Wichita Eagle. About 16 other states have such laws.

Officials in Chanute, a rural town of 9,100 in the southeastern part of the state, "say they’re the primary target of the proposed legislation," Lefler writes. "As part of its public utility system, the city runs an ultra-high-speed broadband network that now serves schools, city buildings, the town hospital, banks and other key businesses." In November, the Chanute City Commission "voted to work toward 'fiber to home,' which would extend access to all residents and businesses within about a three-mile radius around the city, said Larry Gates, Chanute utilities director." Gates told Lefler, “This bill is an attack on competition, an attack on municipal government. It takes away our local control and local decision making. It will hurt our efforts in economic development."

The bill contains an exception for underserved communities, but classifies an area as served "if nine out of 10 residents can get satellite Internet," Lefler writes. "Beamed from space, satellite service is available anywhere in the 48 contiguous United States that has a view of the southern sky. Satellite is generally slower and considerably more expensive than cable or telephone broadband."

The Senate Commerce Committee is divided over the bill. Its chair, Sen. Julia Lynn (R-Olathe), "said the main argument in favor of it is philosophical – the concern of government competing with private enterprise for broadband customers," Lefler repirts. "Lynn said she doesn’t think that’s a fair competition because 'They (municipalities) don’t have to pay property taxes, and they don’t have to pay franchise taxes. It ought to be up to the town to decide if they want the local city hall to take care of it. I think that would only happen in very rare instances where there’s no service.”

The committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City), "said several small towns in his district are considering setting up their own networks or partnering with smaller providers because 'they’ve had a heck of a time trying to provide high-speed Internet to their constituents,'" Lefler writes. Holland told him, "This (bill) would just about shut that down.” (Read more)

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