Lafayette we are here!

The city of Lafayette, LA approved a $125 million municipal bond referendum to build out a municipal network by a hefty 62% to 38% margin. Contrast this with the ease with which state franchising is moving through the TX legislature now that SBC has dropped the anti-muni provision. There’s a lesson here, folks . . .

Some of you all may recall that last month in a knock down drag out fight two bills pushed hard by SBC were defeated in the TX Legislature. One would have prohibitted any kind of public broadband network, while the other would have allowed telephone companies to offer video programming over their new fiber systems without getting a local franchise the way a cable system does now (although they agreed to kick back a 5% franchise fee to localities the way cable comapnies must).

I wrote that the combination of the anti-community broadband bill and the anti-franchising bill had created a powerful alliance that defeated SBC on its home turf. Industry pundits, utterly unwilling to abandon the conventional wisdom that us common folk are helpless in this day and age, argued the opposite. According to the conventional wisdom, the anti-franchising bill was the hard one, because the cable companies opposed it (since it would delay telco deployment of competing systems). In this view, the citizen groups were little more than dressing and did not matter in the clash of special interests duking it out in the SBC Lobbydome.

In support of my view, I submit this weekend as Exhibit A that public pressure, real honest-to-God people calling their elected representatives and taking matters into their own hand, matter more than all the war chests in the world. In Lafayette, LA, both the local cable company (COX) and the local telco (SBC) opposed the City’s decision to build its own broadband network and sued to require a public referendum to allow the city to float a bond offering to fund a public broadband network. After the court decided the city must hold a referendum, Cox and SBC pulled out all the stops to oppose it. But instead, the city population voted 62% to 38% in favor of the referendum.

On the flip side, SBC has dropped the anti-community broadband part of its Texas legislation, and focused exclusively on the state franchising. That bill has now sailed through both the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives and will likely be signed into law unless the TX Legislature fails to come up with an education bill — in which case the governor has refused to sign any other bill into law.

Is this definitive? No. And I eagerly await the explanations from those in denial that citizens can still have an impact on their local government on why Lafayette doesn’t matter and the recent TX action proves their point. Nor is it a final victory. Those who care about their broadband future and protecting their local rights must remain ever vigillant.

But for me, it is one more validation of why I do this job, and why we must change the way in which our legislators do business. No longer can telecom and media policy remain an insider game, in which a few specialists like myself try to offset the corporate lobbysists. Public engagement is hard work, both to convince people why they should care and for people to take the trouble to learn. But when we do, the results speak for themselves.

Stay tuned . . . .

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One Comment

  1. John says:

    Harold,

    Well chalk up another one for participatory democracy. You give us reason to hope.

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