Municipal broadband

Cities cheer Obama's push for municipal broadband

Kansas City's tech renaissance stems partly from early work with Google Fiber

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Dozens of U.S. cities are cheering President Obama's proposal this week for the Federal Communications Commission to allow municipalities to provide their own Internet broadband services even in states that have banned such services.

"Obama's doing just what we have been advocating," said Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City, Mo., in an interview. "It follows what we've been advocating for repeal of these state laws and measures that prevent broadband partnerships for cities."

Kansas City, Mo., is one of 55 cities in the Next Century Cities, a bipartisan group of city leaders who are seeking ways to provide more broadband opportunities, especially in underserved areas. Usher said a live video stream of Obama's broadband announcement from Iowa was shown to members of the group as it met on Wednesday. "There was a lot of cheering in the room" as Obama spoke, he said.

Kansas City, Mo., is not trying to build its own municipal broadband network but has informally partnered with Google Fiber, which is building out 1 Gbps fiber connections to homes and businesses there and on the Kansas City, Kan., side of the two connected cities.

Usher said city officials are especially worried by recently proposed legislation in the Missouri House of Representatives that would "create a lot of hurdles for cities offering competitive services” to private businesses, and city attorneys are studying its ramifications.

Nineteen states ban or limit cities from offering broadband services that compete with private offerings. Obama, in a letter this week, urged the FCC to approve municipal broadband petitions.

The 19 states include Missouri, but also Tennessee and North Carolina, states where two cities are urging the FCC to approve their municipal broadband proposals. The cities are Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C. A map of the 19 states with municipal broadband restrictions can be found on the Broadbandnow site, which supports the expansion of broadband in the U.S.

The Center for Media and Democracy reported last year that the 19 state-level restrictions were based on model legislation that was drafted by the conservative special interest group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, with support from major telecom businesses.

The FCC has legal authority to approve the petitions for municipal broadband by Chattanooga and Wilson, despite the limiting state laws, said Robert Cooper, a partner in the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Washington and an expert in telecommunications litigation.

Cooper, in an email, said the FCC's legal authority comes from Section 706b of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which says that the FCC shall regularly "determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the commission's determination is negative, it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in a telecommunications market."

Cooper said that state laws that restrict municipal broadband deployment are "antithetical to those FCC mandates because they enshrine barriers to investment by local governments." There is "ample" evidence that advanced broadband capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, he added.

Some Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., government and private sector officials are worried that state laws limiting municipal broadband and related legislation could undermine a torrent of tech startup and related economic development activities in the Kansas City region.

Google Fiber helped kick off the renewed tech growth when it came to both cities in 2012. Kansas City, Mo., hopes to capitalize on the trend with construction of a two-mile streetcar line that will run through downtown neighborhoods dotted with tech startup office and meeting spaces as well as art galleries and restaurants.

Networking giant Cisco Systems is planning a smart cities project along the streetcar line complete with wireless sensors and kiosks connected to a fiber-optic cable network that will offer services to tourists, residents and businesses that Cisco hopes will become a model for other cities globally.

A push for tech startups in KC

On Wednesday, the nonprofit Downtown Council of Kansas City, Mo., announced a LaunchKC business competition to lure 10 tech startups to the city with $500,000 total in grants, free office space for 12 months in downtown startup spaces and mentorship programs.

Twenty finalists will attend the first annual Techweek Kansas City conference Sept. 14-20, where a panel of venture capitalists and enterpreneurs will pick the 10 winners.

The LaunchKC competition will focus on attracting startups in business verticals already found in the Kansas City area for advanced manufacturing, agriculture, animal health, big data, cloud services, data analytics, financial tech, health tech, mobile computing and real estate. There is also a robust sports culture in the region, which is home to the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs and other professional sports teams, as well as a sizable interest in stadium architecture that could inspire related startups to compete in LaunchKC, said Mike Hurd, director of marketing for the Downtown Council.

"The area is fortunately enjoying a renaissance and LaunchKC is an opportunity for us to be in the tech startup space," Hurd said. Applications will be taken March 31 to June 30 at the LaunchKC website.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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