Congress Digs Into Broadband

Today’s House Communications and Technology subcommittee hearing on twelve small broadband bills isn’t going to break any new ground. The bills cover a wide range of issues, but none is significant enough to warrant its own hearing.

Two of the witnesses – Cheryl A. Leanza of the United Church of Christ and Tim Donovan of the Competitive Carriers Association – will address specifics of a few of the bills while the other two – Loveland Colorado city council member John Fogle and Todd Brandenburg of small wireless company PocketiNet – will tout specific ways of building broadband networks.

The network advocates will likely deliver the most interesting testimony in light of the overall emphasis on broadband infrastructure in this Congress. Their testimony should resonate beyond the formal scope of the hearing, and I suspect there will be some fireworks between them.

John Fogle and Municipal Networks

Fogle runs a computer repair and home automation installation business in Loveland, a town of 75,000 people that neighbors Fort Collins in northern Colorado. He chairs the Information Technology and Communications Committee of the National League of Cities (NLC), lobbyist for America’s 19,000 cities and towns.

Loveland is one of the four Colorado towns in the municipal broadband business. Like the others – Longmont, Fort Collins, and Estes Park – Loveland provides water and power through government-owned utilities.

Loveland, Fort Collins, and Estes Park have entered into an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for network engineering and customer service as none has the capacity to support a broadband customer base 24×7. Effectively, each city is a retailer for a common wholesale network.

Munis Out 0f Phase

Fogle’s testimony is self-contradictory in some respects. While he maintains that munis are uniquely positioned to bridge the digital divide, he admits they come up short in three key dimensions: financial strength, technical skill, and scale.

He asks Congress to heal these deficiencies by subsidizing construction costs, technical capacity building, and middle mile networks that can be shared across municipal markets. While money helps, munis have some structural incentives of their own that stand in the way of their ability to effectively meet user needs.

In particular, munis are out of phase with the nation on wireless. Fogle delivers a well-worn talking point from turn of the century broadband debates:

While mobile connections are a vital service, they are not a complete substitute for fixed, in-home high-speed connections that can be used by multiple people simultaneously, and are certainly no substitute when educational interface is needed for children.[Page 4]

This is a problem because three of the six residential broadband options in Loveland today are the 5G wireless services provided by the major carriers. While these networks support mobile devices, they also support residential service to the same customer premises equipment used by Pulse, the Loveland network.

Mobile and Fixed are Complements

I doubt that more than a handful of people regard fixed and mobile as competitors anymore. We need mobile devices because people are mobile, and we need fixed connections because homes are full of devices that need to be connected to the Internet all the time.

Certainly, a man who sells home automation services knows this. People use their mobile devices to communicate with cameras and home automation devices all the time; it’s called the Internet of Things.

Mobile looks like a competitor if you’ve convinced taxpayers to support the town’s sixth broadband option by making outlandish promises. Every ad for 5G residential service is something to fear if you’ve been elected by promising more than you can deliver.

Adversarial Reasoning Leads to Bad Outcomes

The cities included in the Larimer County IGA all tried to enact unlawful zoning ordinances for 5G small cells in hopes of protecting their broadband network from competition. The principal anti-competitive features of the ordinances are overly large minimum separation distances between small cells, unreasonable setbacks from residential properties, and unwarranted safety guidelines.

These features are common throughout Colorado because of the influence of the Colorado Communications and Utility Association (CCUA), a twenty-five-year-old lobbying group of cities with broadband dreams. CCUA members always write 600 foot separation distances into their ordinances to discourage residential 5G service, even though there’s no real justification for any minimum separation.

Small cells are the functional equivalent of street lights that can be placed 250 feet apart. But there’s always somebody ready to freak out over each modification to neighborhood architecture.

Complaints About Preemption

The Ninth Circuit upheld federal preemption of restrictive ordinances that impair of the 5G rollout a year ago, in a case in which CCUA was a party. Federal preemption is necessary because of NIMBY-ism and the weak analytical capacity of city councils.

Some of the council hearings on these ordinances are truly frightening as they tend to bring out the same people who regard climate change and COVID-19 as hoaxes. I’ve written about them in other posts.

Fogle tries to justify CCUA and NLC opposition to preemption:

The National League of Cities opposes federal preemptions of local permitting and review processes that impose by-right or deemed granted requirements, or unduly restrict the ability of local governments to assess adequate and appropriate compensation for permit review or the use of public property. These one-size-fits-all mandates are an unnecessary overreach that hamper the ability of local governments to balance deployment speed with other community needs, and do not meaningfully contribute to closing the digital divide.[Page 8]

But it’s not just about money; these organizations want to hamstring regional and national carriers with all sorts of absurd separation requirements, fees, safety studies, and public notices. They want more money from permitting fees, but protecting those muni networks comes first.

Slowing down 5G deployment does not help bridge the digital divide, of course.

Just Say No

In areas where there is no high quality broadband today, it makes perfect sense for munis and electric co-ops to build fiber networks that  accommodate 5G small cells as well as residences. In my view, it doesn’t make any sense for them to build the sixth broadband network at taxpayer expense.

But if the taxpayers are willing to subsidize a sixth network, it will be built, however. When local governments embark on this path they need to do so on their own dime. Greenfield networks deserve heavy subsidies, but bandwagon networks do not.

The priority for Congress in the Wednesday hearing to to draw a bright line between network projects in legitimate need of federal support for construction, technical capacity development, and backhaul and those, like Loveland, that are simply vanity projects.

Let’s spend tax money where there’s a real need to satisfy.