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From MAIN, released March 7:

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A group of rural broadband advocates is calling on
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reform its rural
broadband policies by acknowledging that community-based broadband
networks may serve some rural communities more effectively than
non-local, for-profit carriers.

The request was made in a March 2 filing by the Asheville,
N.C.-based nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in
response to an FCC request for public comment to evaluate and update
its 2009 “Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy.” The public-comment
request included related FCC actions such as the National Broadband
Plan released in March, 2010. Congress mandated the 2009 report in
the
2008 Farm Bill.

MAIN’s filing cites a bias toward for-profit business models and
incumbent carriers, at the expense of community-based networks, in
both the 2009 Report and the National Broadband Plan. The filing was
endorsed by two California-based community broadband networks,
Access Humboldt and Tribal Digital Village, and the
Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which promotes
federal and state policies supporting community broadband networks.

“This bias is both striking and ironic given both documents’
celebration of the historic success of nonprofit networks in
providing rural telephone and electric services over the last seven
decades,” said MAIN executive director Wally Bowen.

“Our filing asks the FCC to recognize that nonprofit business models
are still viable today and should play a key role in any federal
broadband strategy,” Bowen said. He cited the mountain region of
North Carolina for examples of successful nonprofit broadband
networks, ranging from traditional rural electric and telephone
cooperatives to more recent community-based operations. These
networks include: French Broad EMC, ERC Broadband, PANGAEA, MAIN,
Skyline Membership Corp., and Balsam West, a public-private
partnership of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and a Franklin,
N.C.-based software firm.

“For more than 70 years, rural electric and telephone networks have
demonstrated that local ownership creates local jobs, grassroots
innovation, accountability, and most importantly, effective
stewardship over time,” said Bowen, who founded MAIN in 1995 to
provide Internet access with a local phone call in mountain counties
where residents paid long-distance tolls to reach the Internet.
“That’s why it is so puzzling that these key FCC documents downplay
the role of local ‘self-help’ initiatives in federal broadband
strategy,” he said.

Based in Eureka, CA, the nonprofit Access Humboldt manages Humboldt
County’s public access, education, and government TV channels while
leading a regional effort called Digital Redwoods to build and
operate a fiber-wireless community broadband network for this remote
region 225 miles north of San Francisco.

“For generations, local self-help initiatives like Digital Redwoods
have provided essential services in rural communities across
America,” said Sean McLaughlin, executive director of Access
Humboldt. “These rural networks don’t just provide essential
services, they build community, social capital and provide local
jobs. It would be irresponsible not to include rural networks in our
federal broadband strategy,” he said.

Tribal Digital Village is a nonprofit broadband network serving
tribal communities in San Diego County, CA. Its director, Matthew
Rantanen, said that federal policy that assumes only for-profit
carriers can meet rural broadband needs is “out of touch with
progress many rural communities have already made, and ignores local
assets and needs that vary from one rural community to the next.”

MAIN’s filing commends the FCC for adopting a “technology-neutral”
approach in assessing rural broadband technologies and
infrastructure solutions. The filing calls on the FCC to adopt a
similar unbiased approach in assessing potential rural broadband
business models.

Christopher Mitchell, broadband director for the Institute for Local
Self-Reliance, said the FCC’s tilt toward for-profit carriers “is
evident in language that could have been written by a telecom
lobbyist in its disdain for municipally-owned broadband networks.”
He cites a passage in the National Broadband Plan claiming that
“municipally financed service may discourage investment by private
companies.”  But the opposite is true, said Mitchell. “Municipal
networks create a competitive marketplace, giving private companies
an incentive to invest.”

Mitchell points to Monticello, MN, population 10,414, about 38 miles
west of Minneapolis. In 2007, Monticello voters approved a plan to
build a city-owned broadband network. The incumbent provider,  TDS,
cried foul and sued, claiming unfair competition. While the suit
made its way through the courts, the Chicago-based carrier rushed to
build a fiber-to-the-home network in Monticello. The Minnesota
Supreme Court eventually upheld the town’s right to build a
competing broadband network. Today, the town’s residents can choose
25 Mbps service from TDS for $39.95 a month, or 20 Mbps from
Monticello Fiber Net for $34.95 a month.

Similarly, Lafayette, LA, fended off lawsuits from both cable and
telephone incumbents to build its fiber-to-the-home network, which
launched in early 2009. With municipalities winning in state courts,
cable and telecom companies have turned to state legislatures. At
least 19 states have enacted laws limiting or prohibiting municipal
broadband, while at least 35 states are considering bills, according
to the FCC.

The filing also asks the FCC to include community broadband networks
in its plan to shift Universal Service Fund subsidies to support
broadband access in rural and other underserved areas. The fund
generates more than $7 billion a year from telephone subscribers,
who pay about $2 a month to ensure universal telephone access.
Current USF reform proposals exclude community broadband networks.

Bowen noted that a rural broadband crisis exists because for-profit
carriers are required by law to put the interests of investors and
Wall Street ahead of the interests of rural residents and
businesses.  “Investing limited federal subsidies in business models
ill-suited for rural communities is bad policy,” he said. “With our
national focus on jobs, deficits and income disparities, it would be
foolish and tragic to ignore the job-creation and long-term cost
advantages of community broadband networks.”

MAIN’s FCC filing: http://main.nc.us/spotlights/rbpg311final-1.pdf

Angie Newsome

Angie Newsome is the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at anewsome@carolinapublicpress.org.

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