Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ottawa voices opposition to broadband limits

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/4/2014

While lobbyists for big cable companies have won restrictions against municipal broadband networks in 20 states, Ottawa city officials are hopeful they will not see such measures adopted in Kansas.

Last year, Ottawa, Franklin County, Ottawa school district and local economic development leaders worked out an arrangement for the City of Ottawa to supply high-speed, broadband service to government entities, as well as industrial and commercial customers. The city does not provide the service to residential customers. Residential service is handled through private broadband providers.

While lobbyists for big cable companies have won restrictions against municipal broadband networks in 20 states, Ottawa city officials are hopeful they will not see such measures adopted in Kansas.

Last year, Ottawa, Franklin County, Ottawa school district and local economic development leaders worked out an arrangement for the City of Ottawa to supply high-speed, broadband service to government entities, as well as industrial and commercial customers. The city does not provide the service to residential customers. Residential service is handled through private broadband providers.

A bill introduced in the Kansas Legislature this session would not only prevent cities from establishing their own broadband networks; it would prevent municipalities from forming partnerships with private Internet providers to provide broadband services. A similar bill was introduced in the Utah Legislature this session.

Kansas Senate Bill 304, known as the Municipal Communications Network and Private Telecommunications Investment Safeguards Act, would ban municipalities from purchasing, leasing, building, maintaining or operating a network that delivers telecommunications to the public. The measure has failed to gain traction this session.

Expressing public concerns about possible municipal broadband restrictions in the future, Ottawa city commissioners voted 5-0 Wednesday night to adopt a staff-recommended “resolution of support” for locally owned broadband utilities which asked the Federal Communications Commission to “restore and preserve” the ability of local governments to invest in and in some cases partner with other broadband network providers.

Municipal broadband restrictions would stifle economic growth, discourage larger companies from locating branches in Ottawa and diminish the quality of life in the community by limiting access to the high-speed Internet connectivity that has become essential to conducting business, Chuck Bigham, the city’s information technology director, said.

Establishing a network of sustainable broadband fiber has become as vital a utility as water, roads, sewer and other infrastructure to doing business today, Richard Nienstedt, city manager, said. The city’s website lists its broadband service under utilities.

Heather Morgan, director of Project 17, an initiative to improve the quality of life and economic opportunities in 17 Southeast Kansas counties — including Franklin — echoed Bigham and Nienstedt’s comments during her address as the featured speaker at the annual Ottawa Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast Tuesday morning.

Residents and businesses in 10 of the 17 counties in Project 17 do not have access to high-speed broadband Internet services, and most systems in the region operate at 6 megabits-per-second, Morgan said.

“That is really slow,” she said. “Only 14 percent of businesses [in the 17-county area] have websites.”

The lack of fast and reliable broadband service in the Northeast Ottawa Industrial Park has been a detriment to growth, one local economic development official said in June 2013 as the city prepared to expand its broadband services by working out an agreement with the Ottawa school district to tap into some existing fiber. Being able to provide businesses with broadband service is critical to recruitment, Jeff Seymour, Franklin County Development Council executive director, told Ottawa city commissioners at the time.

Nienstedt expanded on that point Wednesday night, telling commissioners that local officials met with major broadband providers serving the region, and none expressed interest in upgrading their services to better serve industrial and commercial customers.

“If we had a private market solution, we would have advocated that,” Nienstedt said.

The city’s service represented a significant cost savings for the county, Dustin Coureton, with the county’s information technology department, said when the Franklin County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to enter into a three-year commitment with the city for broadband services last year. Coureton said the proposal also would increase the county’s speed from a 6 megabit connection to a much faster 20 megabit connection.

Bigham on Wednesday cited a couple of examples of other success stories for the city’s broadband service, saying the school district saw its Internet costs cut in half while more than doubling its speed. He said the faster connection also has facilitated the Ottawa Coop’s business by enabling it to get grain prices quicker.

Proponents of lifting the restrictions against municipal broadband in the 20 states where they already have been imposed took heart in late February when Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman, announced he wanted to examine state laws that prohibit or restrict the ability of cities and towns to offer Internet service, according to news accounts.

“The commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition,” Wheeler said in a statement.

One of the obvious places to start, Wheeler said, was to cast a critical eye toward state-mandated restrictions on the ability of cities “to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.”

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