Big Telecom Convinced Wyoming’s Politicians to Rewrite a Community Broadband Bill

A bill that has passed the state legislature originally set aside funds for municipal-run internet, but after lobbyists had their say, the bill was changed.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: Wikipedia

A bill introduced in Wyoming that set aside money to invest in municipal-owned internet was revamped before it passed to favor Big Telecom. The bill originally listed “a city, town or county or joint powers board,” as eligible for state funding to set up a local ISP, but after consulting with industry lobbyists, elected officials changed the bill and it now limits funds to “public private partnerships.”

The bill, which has passed both the state house and senate and is expected to be signed by Governor Matt Mead, established a $10 million fund for building broadband infrastructure under the state’s ENDOW initiative—Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming. The original text of the bill was fairly flexible, allowing towns or counties to apply for funds to establish municipal networks: publicly-owned and operated ISPs that function kind of like a public utility.

But that language was changed in a substitute bill that was introduced in its place, in part due to the demands of telecom lobbyists, according to one state senator.

“It takes another, fresh set of eyes to finalize,” state senator Michael Von Flatern, who sits on the Management Council that sponsored the bill, told me over the phone. “The telecom companies weighed in and of course they didn’t want to be cut out of it.”

Traditional telecom companies have long been opposed to municipally-owned ISPs, and consistently lobby against them. A recent study showed this is, at least in part, because community ISPs can provide service at a much lower cost than private companies.

Technically, towns can still apply for a public program, said Von Flatern, but it most likely wouldn’t be approved, he said. That’s because the bill also gives power to the Wyoming Business Council, a group with telecom representatives on its board of directors, the final say in approving applications for funding.

Wyoming is no stranger to the digital divide, with more than half of the state’s rural residents lacking access to high-speed internet. Public-private partnerships and stimulus for private companies to build out infrastructure are not bad investments in trying to close that divide. But completely blocking the options of municipal networks limits the options for rural communities to get connected, and will certainly leave some areas unserved. Marian Orr, the mayor of Cheyenne, Wyoming, wrote on Facebook that industry had rewritten the bill in their favor:

Von Flatern told me the decision to limit municipal networks was based on the concern that towns might not have the expertise needed to run a network successful, and then the money could go to waste instead of going where it’s most needed.

“We can’t give away state money and find out two or three years later the network is not operating anymore because they didn’t have the expertise or the money to keep it functioning properly,” he said.

I asked Von Flatern if this is a scenario that has happened in Wyoming before, where a town has received state funds to set up a community-owned broadband network that went defunct. He told me no.

Currently, Wyoming currently has one community-owned ISP, in Powell, in the north of the state, though that network is a public-private partnership. But other communities across the country have had success with purely public networks, particularly in very rural or remote areas where the investment for private companies—even with state funding—would be too high to be worth the return. Once Wyoming let Big Telecom’s fingers on its bill, that option was wiped from the table.

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