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As public broadband networks ramp up, so do new attacks

Public broadband networks are growing in number and popularity around the US. But various efforts are underway to undermine communities opting for the muni model.

Nicole Ferraro

January 23, 2024

8 Min Read
Late afternoon light shines on a broadband internet utility access panel.
(Source: Matt Gush/Alamy Stock Photo)

In a report last week, the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) said that the US has gained an additional 47 municipal broadband networks since January 2021, bringing the total to nearly 450. That's in addition to "dozens" of others that are underway, said the group, and it doesn't include hundreds of other community-led networks, like those being built by electric cooperatives and tribes. But as municipal and public networks gain in popularity, efforts to squash them are growing as well.

Among the latest moves against public broadband includes proposed legislation circulating in the state of Kentucky that could see one municipality forced to sell its fiber network.

The legislation reportedly being proposed by State Sen. Gex Williams, a Republican, would require the Frankfort Plant Board (FPB) to sell or transfer its telecommunications business to a private entity. The FPB has been building out a fiber-to-the-home network for years and providing broadband in Franklin County as Nextband since 2021. Last year, the utility received $8 million in state grants toward a $16 million build to reach 2,000 unserved homes and businesses.

But according to local reports, the senator said he doesn't believe the utility can compete with large incumbent providers: "There is no way that this little, itty bitty community can compete against AT&T and Charter and all these big guys that are going to be operating on very thin margins but over a lot of people," he told the Kentucky Lantern.

Related:Battle for Bountiful ends in win for public broadband advocates

In an editorial for the State Journal last year, Sen. Williams called the FPB network a "significant asset" worth selling: "With cable's decline already underway, Frankfort should divest from the media and internet business and channel resources into enhancing our riverfront and downtown to stimulate economic growth," he wrote.

The FPB, however, is fighting back. The utility has launched a dedicated web page, asserting "our community is not for sale" and asking people to sign a petition to the state's General Assembly opposing the proposed legislation.

"If Frankfort Plant Board is forced to sell broadband business, it will result in spiked rates for everything the utility offers – power, water, and telecom," reads the petition. "Your constituents are counting on you to stop harmful legislation just like this proposal. Small government works with local government, not against."

The issue caught the attention of the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB), led by Gigi Sohn. In a media statement, Sohn called the proposed legislation "a solution in search of a problem." In a letter to the Kentucky General Assembly, the AAPB said it strongly opposed the proposed legislation and refuted the idea that the public network is uncompetitive.

Related:Colorado governor signs bill removing municipal broadband barriers

"By all measures, the broadband and telecommunications network has been an enormous success. It serves approximately 16,000 Frankfort residents, a whopping 65% take rate that would be the envy of any network operator, public or private," wrote Sohn on behalf of the AAPB.

In a press statement, she further called the effort "just the latest in a series of recent dark money efforts to slow the inevitable march toward communities owning their broadband futures."

'Dark money' ties

In addition to opposing the Kentucky legislation, Sohn and the AAPB – which represents over 350 community broadband networks – have also been leading the charge against other emerging efforts to challenge municipal projects. In statements, the group claims these attacks on community networks are being fueled by "dark money."

Late last year, an organization called the Domestic Policy Caucus (DPC) launched a new campaign against public broadband efforts: NoGovInternet.com, which primarily takes aim at Utah's Utopia Fiber. In December, NoGovInternet.com launched an advertising campaign referring to Utopia Fiber as a "dystopia" and promoting its own petition against the municipal model.

DPC is also supporting a campaign called Mass Priorities, which is rallying against municipal projects in Massachusetts, including a planned community broadband network for the town of Falmouth, where Comcast is the primary provider.

On Utopia Fiber, the group claims: "The 20-year-old project is $300 million in debt and still hasn't achieved its goals. Worse, UTOPIA is trying to spread the debt by convincing more cities to join the scheme. And cities are putting up sales tax revenue as collateral for these risky schemes, meaning budgets for schools, firefighters, and other core government functions are at risk."

And on Falmouth's broadband network, it says: "In Falmouth, advocates are proposing a government-owned broadband network that will cost at least $55 million. That's more than the entire annual budget for Falmouth schools, 160 times greater than what has been allocated for veterans' benefits and 95 times more than what is earmarked for senior services."

But according to Sohn and the AAPB, the DPC attack on Utopia and others appears to have ties to "big cable," which she said is "hiding behind a surrogate [DPC] that doesn't reveal its financial supporters."

Added Sohn: "It is profoundly ironic that the country's richest media companies are attacking 'government-run' networks when they are at the same time bringing in billions of dollars of subsidies from the federal government and seeking billions more in grants from state governments. When your tax dollars are on the table, these 'private' enterprises are more than happy to grab them with both hands."

It is unclear where DPC gets its funding. That information is not disclosed and the group did not respond to questions from Light Reading as of this writing. But according to public records, the group has previously funded campaigns for congressional Republicans, as well as "Conservatives for a Yes on National Popular Vote." (Two DPC board members, Patrick Rosenstiel and Kent Kaiser, are also listed as team members for Conservatives for a National Popular Vote.)

The "NoGovInternet" effort is also being spearheaded by former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, with Hughes telling Fox 13, "Government internet generally is a growing trend, and I don't think it's a good one."

Utopia Fiber, meanwhile, has gone on the record to refute the attacks on its network. The company operates an open access model, whereby it partners with municipalities to build out fiber networks but local ISPs deliver the service. Utopia Fiber is now active in 20 cities, connecting 60,000 homes and businesses.

"At UTOPIA Fiber, we are aware of recent negative advertisements using misinformation to stop government-run broadband from operating, a message strikingly inconsistent with the plans and needs of many municipalities," said the company in a statement. "In fact, it's because of the inability of other Internet providers to meet the requests of communities across Utah that we are often asked to help build out the infrastructure, lead project management, and deliver services to the home on major high-speed Internet projects."

Broadband billions and public pressure

The ongoing fight about who should own and operate broadband networks comes as the federal government gets closer to distributing over $40 billion through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

While the Biden administration initially sought to prioritize funding for public broadband networks, the final language of the infrastructure law and BEAD program says that states cannot exclude public broadband networks from their grant programs and need to describe efforts undertaken to "ensure the participation of non-traditional broadband providers" in their final BEAD proposals.

The forthcoming BEAD bucks led Colorado to overturn a state law preventing municipal broadband last year. The state of Washington also reversed its own municipal broadband ban in 2021.

Moreover, as municipal networks gain in popularity nationwide, efforts to malign them are being met with community resistance.

In Kentucky, officials from Franklin County and Frankfort City, where FPB delivers broadband service, have pushed back on the proposed legislation to force a sale of its telecom asset, with Frankfort's mayor and board of commissioners passing a resolution in December "giving unwavering support of the Frankfort Plant Board, its employees, staff, and executives, and its continued efforts to provide essential utility services to our beloved community."

Last year, an effort by the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA) to sideline an approved community broadband project in Bountiful, Utah, ultimately failed, thanks partly to public pressure from AAPB. At the time, Sohn and AAPB called out UTA's ties to cable companies Comcast and CenturyLink/Lumen. The effort to stop the project failed to gather enough signatures, enabling Bountiful Fiber to officially break ground in August. Bountiful's network is being built and operated by Utopia Fiber.

About the Author(s)

Nicole Ferraro

Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast, Light Reading

Nicole covers broadband, policy and the digital divide. She hosts The Divide on the Light Reading Podcast and tracks broadband builds in The Buildout column. Some* call her the Broadband Broad (*nobody).

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