Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mr. Durel Goes to Washington — updated

Joey Durel presented Lafayette's case for municipal broadband to Washington this morning. He spoke today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The committee hearing was in reference to a proposed new law called the "Wireless Consumer Protection and Community Broadband Empowerment Act." Most attention on the net and in trade news has focused on the first section of the bill which focuses on making wireless networks more consumer-friendly. Some articles have suggested that such a law would result in open, unlocked cell phones. The iPhone, for instance, couldn't be locked in to only AT&T. Others would force companies to provide more transparent and accurate information on coverage and terms. All that, of course, would be a great thing.

But the primary interest of those of us in Lafayette, and the reason our Mayor showed up on capital hill, lies in the second part, Title II: Community Broadband Empowerment. That portion would prevent any state forbidding municipal networks—something that lobbyists have successfully promoted in a number of states...and something that they tried to do in Lousisiana where only Governor Blanco's clear signal that she'd veto anything that both sides couldn't agree to lead to a compromise that allowed Lafayette to proceed, though with significant unfair restrictions on its ability to compete. The gist:
No State or local government statute, regulation, or other legal requirement may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting, any public provider from providing advanced communications capability or service to any person or to any public or private entity.
Now that leaves significant wiggle room for endless litigation. (Lafayette knows well the danger of laws being used to simply delay a local project. We lost years going down that path.) Louisiana's (Un)Fair Competition Act significantly cripples the fiscal operation of any municipality in the state that wants to offer its citizens a cheaper, more competitive deal—large swaths of the law incongruously force the state regulators to raise (not lower, raise) the price they offer their citizen/customers based on expenses that municipalities do not have. (NO portion of the law sets an upper limit on prices....this is "regulation in the public interest" where the public's interest is scarcely served. Clearly no one thinks the citizen-owners will overcharge themselves. So all that is left is to protect is...the enormous corporations??? AT&T don't need to be protected from Lafayette, quite the opposite is true.) Sadly, Lafayette may prove that such laws, as unfair as they are, do not "prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting" an exceptionally determined municipality. It would be unfair to the nation as a whole if Lafayette's unusual energy and determination had the effect of barring communities across the nation from safely following its lead.

A good federal law would not leave such large loopholes--states ought also to be prohibited from enacting laws that would make local communities labor under regulatory disadvantages that do not apply equally to their large, corporate competitors.

I didn't hear about the session until it was already underway but thanks to the miracles of the internet was able to tune in to session then. I missed Joey's initial remarks but captured most of the discussion that followed. That went as you might expect: Representatives reperesented the interests of their state (or corporation). The representative from California was worried that strong California consumer guarantees not be diluted--while the speaker from the industry clearly hoped it would be. The senator from AT&T's San Antonio hometown insisted that "government" had some unfair advantage—completely ignoring how crazy was the idea that Lafayette's little power/sewer/water utility could ever operate at anything other than a huge competitive disadvantage to the immense monolithic power of AT&T.

Joey acquitted himself well; insisting that we were doing for ourselves what corporations refused to do for us and had done so with the uniform support of local business and local bipartisan political endorsement. Not to mention an overwhelming vote of the people. That seemed hard for the opponents to respond to—as well it might. The contrast between someone whose first interest was his community and someone who was trying promote corporate interests instead was, I am sure, uncomfortable for the representatives who are hoping to prevent the passage of such a law.

Some fun sound bites:
Durel was talking about taking the fight all the way to the state supreme court. He commented:
"those were probably the best marketing dollar we could had ever spent. It was great publicity for us."
Now thats a bit of bravado. It might even be kinda true.

Several times Joey was challenged with some industry rhetoric—mostly about promises that the incumbents made or didn't make. Several times he answered:
"Smoke and mirrors."
That's the Joey we know and remember from the fiber fight. There was little such bluntness in the rest of the discussion.

Some of the questioners seemed to be suspicious of the very idea that the community might offer a product for less money than the amount they were paying to buy their service from private providers. Durel was ready for that one. He said that he'd tell them what he told his own community:
"You'll still be able to have less quality for more money."
And the room erupted into laughter.

NOTE: My thanks to the alert reader who pointed me to this event!

Update 10:20 PM: The archive for this meeting is already up. I'm happy since I missed the first of the live meeting. You can get the written version of Durel's remarks and stream or download an audio of the meeting. That's pretty impressive transparency...and a pretty nifty use of the internet to make government accessible. Durel's set-piece talk starts at 28 minutes. He deviates significantly--very significantly, it is almost a completely different speech from the written remarks and the spoken version is much more interesting, emphasizing keeping our children home, development, that we'll have peer to peer 100 megs for "free," and about the digital divide: "People on our system will be able surf the internet from their television, with a wireless keypad and a wireless mouse."

With tongue firmly in cheek Durel also said: "I hope 49 states outlaw doing what we are doing. Please send your technology companies to Lafayette and we'll welcome them with open arms and a gumbo."

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