Rep. Boucher's bill would ok municipal broadband

by David Hatch, National Journal

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., soon will introduce legislation permitting local governments to offer telecommunications service, including wireless, high-speed Internet access and wireline telephone connections.

The bill, already being drafted, mostly would benefit small communities in rural areas, such as towns in the rural southwestern Virginia district represented by Boucher. "These barriers need to be lifted," he said during a Thursday speech at a broadband policy conference.

In communities underserved by commercial telecom providers, he added, "local governments ought to be able to step in and fill the gap."

Boucher noted that the municipal approach was the solution for Bland, a village of 200 in his district that had no broadband two years ago. At Boucher's urging, local officials invested $5,000 to create a wireless system for the community, making Bland the first Virginia town to establish its own broadband network. Wireless access is now available for free within a few blocks of the county courthouse and can easily be expanded beyond that perimeter.

"For a small investment, an efficient service can now be provided where no service was before," he said. Boucher, a senior member of both the House Energy and Commerce and Judiciary committees, later said that he hopes to line up a Republican co-sponsor for the measure.

"A lot of states prohibit their local governments from doing this," he said when asked why federal intervention is needed.

The measure would be targeted to areas that lack various services or have only one provider, Boucher said. "But my bill is not limited just to that scope. My bill would say any local government across the country is free to offer commercial telecom services."

It will be modeled after language that Boucher inserted into unsuccessful House-passed telecom legislation last year. "We're not going to be taking that comprehensive measure up again," he said, explaining that its chief proponents, the Bell telecom companies, are no longer at the table.

During his speech, the House member acknowledged that ongoing controversy over network neutrality, the issue that derailed the 2006 legislation in the Senate, has cast a pall over fresh efforts to move telecom measures. Under the neutrality concept, the government would mandate an open Internet that could not be dominated by broadband companies who charge content providers for faster access to their content.

Officials with Verizon Communications did not have immediate reactions to the municipal telecom plan, though the lawmaker noted that major carriers did not oppose last year's language. Boucher did win an endorsement from Rick Whitt, Washington telecom and media counsel for Google, who said during a panel discussion, "We think the best answer is to let the municipalities choose whether to get involved in doing that."

An AT&T spokesman said: "We look forward to reading Rep. Boucher's bill and commend him for his efforts to promote broadband deployment to every community in the nation." He added, "We are always looking for opportunities to bring the benefits of broadband to consumers."

"There are many ways to spur broadband deployment to unserved areas, and that would be one option," Allison Remsen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Telecom Association, whose members include the Bells, said in an e-mail response. "We believe there are other options that could better achieve the same goals."

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