May 03, 2005

Quorum Report: Cities, broadband enthousiasts vent anger of HB789

From the Quorum Report on Thursday April 28:

State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) dodged a few bullets by not showing up for the 7th Annual Community Networking Conference in Austin this morning.

King, chair of the House Regulated Industries Committee, was due to give the keynote speech on his major telecommunications legislation - House Bill 789 - to around 80 broadband enthusiasts and municipal leaders.

Unable to attend, King sent Jake Posey, special legal counsel to the Regulated Industries Committee, in his place. Posey took so much flak over legislative efforts to block municipalities from offering Wi-Fi and broadband services to their residents that Gene Crick, event host and executive director of the Texas Internet Service Providers Association, offered some light relief.

"I want to thank Jake Posey for coming. He did not know he was being invited to the birthday party to be the piņata," Crick joked.

Posey explained that the amended version of HB 789 gives 'grandfather rights' to cities and counties that are currently offering Wi-Fi and broadband. Municipalities that are thinking about it can still proceed if they provide a letter of intent to the Public Utility Commission by June 2006. However, they must provide those services to the public for free. The PUC, meanwhile, must report back to the 80th Legislature on where things stand.

"We're trying to make sure that the companies that are willing to make an investment in rural Texas or any community in Texas aren't competing against a captive face of dollars, i.e., taxpayer dollars. Private capital can't compete with that sort of competition," Posey said, explaining the thinking behind HB 789.

The audience was far from convinced. To great applause, Tony Tull, IT director for the City of Granbury, said it was "almost a fiduciary duty" for municipalities to provide broadband when the major telecom providers failed to do so.

"I don't believe in government that competes with private industry unless there's just no other choice," Tull said. "I would like there to be a choice for rural communities. Open it up, like we did. But when all that fails, I do not believe that it is the Legislature's stand to stop the municipalities from bringing it to their people."

Mike Timmins, vice president of Frontier Broadband, said his company had wanted to forge a public-private partnership with the City of Granbury and other communities to provide high speed Internet services. Timmins said that once HB 789 was unveiled his company was left in "limbo," while SBC was "very smug."

Randall Jones, city manager for the City of Weimar, said a local telecom provider had threatened to "turn off the cable" if it did not get the city's franchise. He said his city was the last to get the rotary phone and did not hold out much hope of getting high speed Internet.

"I don't want to run an ISP or be any part of it but I will give you the infrastructure to do that if no one else will do that," Jones said. "Verizon is not going to come to come into Weimar."

Carl Shannon, an alderman in the City of Llano, was also unhappy with the Legislature. "We have a river running through the middle of our city, the Llano River," Shannon said. "We have DSL on one side. We can't get it on the other. You're killing us."...

Posey responded that, coming from a small town in southeast Texas, he understood the concerns raised. Posey said King also cared about rural Texas and had tried to negotiate a deal that was good for everyone.

"Chairman King's door is always open," Posey said. "His intent is not to exclude anyone and certainly not rural Texas."

HB 789 has been passed out of the House and is now in the Senate. Posey encouraged audience members to contact their senators and, perhaps, call for the dates of the proposed changes to be pushed out. "You all make very good points," Posey said.

Posted by alevin at May 3, 2005 02:01 PM