RealTime IT News

Senate Panel Blesses Community Broadband

UPDATED: A Senate panel has approved legislation banning states' efforts to prevent local governments from providing community broadband access.

The Community Broadband Act of 2007 would pave the way for cities to install free Wi-Fi networks without being forced to contract through existing commercial providers. A similar measure is moving forward in the House, and both bills have broad bipartisan support.

The bill would reverse laws on the books in Pennsylvania and 13 other states that prevent local governments from providing free or low-cost broadband access to citizens in competition with commercial broadband services.

The Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee voted to forward the bill, submitted by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

"Broadband access should be universal and affordable," Lautenberg said. "Widespread broadband access would promote economic development, enhance public safety and increase educational opportunities for millions of Americans across the country. I applaud the committee's vote to support towns and cities across the country in their efforts to offer faster, more affordable Internet service."

In addition to prohibiting states from preventing "a public provider" from offering broadband services, the bill also prohibits local governments from discriminating against competing private providers.

It requires municipal broadband networks to comply with state and local regulations of telecommunications providers, and requires public hearings before local governments roll out broadband services.

The proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), as well as Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), would also encourage public-private partnerships to provide broadband services.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Reps. Frederick Boucher (D-Va.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), was introduced in August in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It has yet to be referred out of the Telecommunications subcommittee.

Pennsylvania attempted to restrict municipal broadband networks under pressure from Verizon in 2004, when Philadelphia announced its plans for a citywide Wi-Fi network.

Verizon allowed the city to continue with its plans, but the Pennsylvania legislation made it difficult for other municipalities in the state to undertake similar projects without getting approval from regional telecommunications companies.

In September, a coalition of community organizations and Internet companies, including Google, Skype, EarthLink, and the American Library Association mounted a letter-writing campaign to senators and congressmen to encourage them to co-sponsor the measure.

"Community broadband networks offer the promise of increased economic development and jobs, enhanced market competition, improved delivery of e-government services, and accelerated universal, affordable Internet access for all Americans," the letter read.

"Communities should be encouraged to step forward to do their part to ensure the rapid deployment of broadband to all Americans, and they should have the freedom to choose what makes the most sense for their citizens."

A Verizon spokesperson would not comment on the bill. However, Verizon is backing a broadband "mapping" bill, forwarded to the House yesterday, that would determine areas of the country that currently lack or are underserved by broadband access.

That legislation would mandate a national inventory of broadband internet access services, and direct federal policymakers to work with telecom providers to identify areas in need.

"Getting broadband to as many people as possible, no matter where they live, is an important policy goal," said Peter Davidson, Verizon senior vice president for federal government relations, in a statement yesterday.

"Verizon applauds Chairmen [John] Dingell and [Edward] Markey, ranking members [Bill] Barton and Upton, and other members of the committee for putting together a much-improved, bipartisan broadband mapping bill that focuses on something important to the American people and our economy."