Inside the tiny Kansas town battling cable lobbyists over municipal broadband

Those in Chanute, Kan., want the state to hear the merits of municipal broadband before passing legislation that outlaws it.

When the Kansas state senate proposed legislation barring local governments from providing high-speed Internet to their citizens, one small community, which was effectively exempt from the legislation, spoke out the loudest.

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Chanute, Kan.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 304 (PDF), prohibited the creation of municipal broadband networks for areas in the state that were deemed “unserved.” This meant that, in the event that an ISP declined to invest in small Kansas communities that were unlikely to provide a return on their investments, the local governments were legally barred from providing broadband to their citizens themselves.

The most troubling aspect of SB 304 was its definition of an “unserved area.” Any location where even satellite connectivity was available would be considered “served,” as were those that met the minimum acceptable speeds outlined by the FCC. These minimum requirements would hardly provide sufficient broadband for modern schools and healthcare facilities. Ultimately, the legislation meant that small towns with little to no Internet access would be left in the dark and sued if they tried to upgrade themselves.

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Larry Gates, utilities director for the city of Chanute, Kan., played a big role in the effort that ultimately persuaded Kansas Sen. Julia Lynn to withdraw SB 304 earlier this month so her committee could “tweak” its language. Chanute launched a webpage on its city website urging Kansans to sign a petition against the bill, issued press releases denouncing the bill and the cable lobbyists who were behind it, and posted YouTube videos detailing what was at stake.

Having owned a municipal fiber-optic network since 1984 and operated as an ISP since 2005, Gates and the city of Chanute knew what was at stake. They assumed a leadership role in the bill’s opposition even though the law was not intended to affect municipal broadband networks that had already been established. Although Gates and his colleagues were concerned about how SB 304 would affect other communities, at the same time he doesn’t believe Chanute would remain unharmed if the bill were to pass.

“That bill would have made it impossible for someone to have started anything, but then it was so vague that I couldn’t connect any new customers. So I could possibly be sued for that,” Gates says.

The city of Chanute is a poster boy for the necessity of municipal broadband networks. With a population of just more than 9,000 people, Chanute was once turned away by large ISPs that deemed it unworthy of an investment. It makes sense for large telecommunications providers to turn down big investments in small markets, but it’s unacceptable for the state to prevent the people in these communities from trying to improve the services themselves, Gates says.

“We’re taking a leadership position to do something about it. I’d hate to sit here and keep bashing AT&T and Cable One. They don’t care. All they care about is paying dividends back to their stockholders,” he says. “My feeling - this is mine, it’s probably not the city’s, but it’s mine – is I wouldn’t care if we ever made a dime on this network, as long as it would pay for itself. If it could increase and do the things with education, health, safety, and economic development – man, that’s a win. That’s a huge win.”

Chanute’s broadband network offers gigabit Internet speeds to businesses for a total of about $400 per month, and the city has recently begun its efforts to extend gigabit speeds to residential customers. In addition to the broadband, Chanute also offers free Wi-Fi in its parks and its downtown area, as well as a 4G WiMAX system, which is available for commercial purposes for the time being.

Although the city has yet to connect a residential customer with gigabit speeds, it may not take long to attract attention from the city’s residents, “who are just sick and tired of not being able to upload and download what they’re needing,” Gates says.

On an enterprise scale, Chanute’s broadband is already paying dividends in the town’s healthcare resources, providing fast-enough speeds to enable telemedicine and videoconferencing with remote specialists.

“[If] you have a stroke here in Chanute, you hit our emergency room and you’re automatically connected to a neurologist in Denver, Colorado,” Gates says. “We’re a town of 9,100 people. We don’t have a lot of neurologists in our community, let alone staff available 24/7. So they’re able to do that.”

Google Fiber, which offers gigabit speeds at remarkably inexpensive rates, has made Kansas City, Mo., an attractive location for new businesses. Since its inception, however, Chanute’s economy has begun to benefit from the initiative as well.

“There are some high-tech kids that are looking at moving into Chanute who started their own Internet business. I guess they call them the nerds, or geeks,” Gates says. “Anyway, they actually live up in the Kansas City, Missouri, area, and they can’t get into the Google ‘hood, or fiberhood, as they call it up there. The rent has gone up significantly in those places.”

With Google Fiber driving up the rent in Kansas City, area businesses that were attracted by the advantages of low-cost gigabit Internet speeds are turning to Chanute to get the same speeds with lower overhead costs.

“We’re actually creating jobs because of our network. There are people who are locating here specifically because they can get gig speeds,” he says.

Chanute’s story, as well as those of the many municipal broadband networks in communities across the United States, is becoming increasingly important as ISPs push for legislation barring municipal broadband across the country. Cable industry lobbyists have already succeeded in this effort in 20 states across the country, as a recent Ars Technica article explains. Attorney James Baller, of the Baller Herbst Law Group, which has fought similar efforts against municipal broadband for years, told Ars Technica that SB 304 is the most extreme legislation of its kind that he’s seen.

Often, this kind of legislation claims it protects jobs and taxpayer money, enabling ISPs to create jobs in the areas they serve and preventing municipalities from spending tax dollars on broadband projects. However, cable companies can’t create jobs in areas where they decline to do business, and Gates insists that Chanute’s broadband services are entirely self-reliant.

“We have not spent one penny of taxpayers’ dollars to build our network. Not one penny. It’s all done through the electric department,” Gates says. “It’s been done through there just exactly like if you built a new home in Chanute and you wanted electric service and I build that electric to you. It’s the same way with the fiber optics. If somebody wants to get on our fiber network, we’ll build it to you.”

Moving ahead, Gates wants to put the vitriol that resulted from the bill aside – he’s apologized for calling out Senator Lynn and KCTA President and cable industry lobbyist John Federico by name – and work to find a way to improve services in the state without the legal battles and confrontation. When asked about what the city of Chanute will do if and when the bill comes back, which he and others in the state expect to happen, he stopped short of declaring another crusade against state lawmakers until he can see what they intend to do next.

“It depends upon what [the bill] says, and how it looks, I guess is probably what we should do,” Gates says. “But anything that infringes upon Kansas’ constitutional right of home rule will not sit good with any community in the state of Kansas, even these communities in which these folks were elected.”

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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