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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.

By , Network World
February 26, 2014 06:02 AM ET

Network World - 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.”

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