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The Fight for Local Freedom to Connect

Jim Baller is the founder of the Baller Herbst Law Group, a national law firm based in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. The firm represents local governments and public power utilities and specializes in telecommunications, cable television, and high-speed data communications. Terry Huval works as director of Lafayette Utilities System.

Jim Baller is the founder of the Baller Herbst Law Group, a national law firm based in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. The firm represents local governments and public power utilities and specializes in telecommunications, cable television, and high-speed data communications. Terry Huval works as director of Lafayette Utilities System. Their dual presentation at Freedom to Connect covered opportunities to advocate for high-speed access on the part of local governments and utilities — as well as a specific case currently underway in Lafayette, Louisiana. What follows is a partial transcript of their bump-set teamup:

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Jim Baller: I consider myself to be the most fortunate lawyer in the country. I fight every day for the freedom to connect. Man is a curious animal. He can’t read the writing on the wall until his back is up against it. That aphorism is only partially true when it comes to public broadband. Municipalities have played a leading role in the wire-line and wireless sides of access. Hundreds lease facilities of various kinds to lead deployment. They’re at the forefront. Municipalities account for more than 30% of broadband to the home. Those communities will face huge advantages in terms of economic development and quality of life. As a nation, we should do everything possible to encourage municipalities.

In the wireless realm, a whole new breed of municipalities have emerged. They pursue the same goals as those on the wire-line side, but they’re pursuing those goals in entirely different ways. They’re sacrificing some bandwidth in order to get to market, but eventually the wire-line and wireless worlds will converge. If our public and private sectors are in line, America can become more competitive.

Most Americans are probably comfortable with the current state of broadband deployment, though. That’s understandable, as long as people keep telling us things are just fine. But we’re far behind Korea, Japan, and other leading nations. I’m reading a book called China Inc. that stresses the need to get our national policies together. We’re far behind.

After the recent Pennsylvania law passed, a strong sense of revulsion spread across America. The cry of “No more Pennsylvanias!” echoed around the nation. It’s appropriate to push up broadband in municipal priorities. The battle for municipal broadband is important to freedom of choice and localism.

We’ve been able to mount a campaign in opposition to barriers to entry in 11 states. I’m increasingly optimistic. A new challenge just arose in West Virginia. I hope we have the time to fight that, too. Incumbent companies are waging wars against municipalities. Before long, the incumbents may ask Congress for assistance. They’re already engaging in predatory pricing and blocking access to customers.

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There are so many core freedoms at stake that we can’t give up. Join us in these battles.

Terry Huval: Lafayette, Louisiana, is located in south Louisiana between New Orleans and Houston. We’re about 40 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico. We are a community of entrepreneurs. We have a lot of small businesses; we’re not a large industrial community. Our largest employer is our university. We’ve been looking at ways to diversify. It’s the fastest-growing city in Louisiana today.

In 1896, some people heard about a new technology: electricity. New Orleans was getting electricity. Baton Rouge was getting electricity. But no one was bringing electricity to Lafayette. The city held a vote and embarked on building its own electricity and water system. People recognized that a home-grown utility system meant that if there was a problem, you could make a seven-digit phone call and reach the director. That’s me.

Our people have gotten really spoiled about the kind of service we can provide. There’s a lot of pride in our employees. We’re self-contained. We have the highest reliability in the state. And we’ve had the lowest rates in the state. When we put up powerlines, we ran high-speed data lines. We wired all of our government buildings. And we partnered with the private sector in 2002 to resell our bandwidth and use our system.

We’re breaking into the black in year three. But that only connected large companies. We didn’t attract any small resellers. Our large partners didn’t want to change their business model. Then I learned about fiber to the home. We knew that if we did a market study, the cat would be out of the bag. So we announced we were looking at it. We got a huge amount of support. 70% of the homes said they’d buy service from us at a competitive price.

Next thing we know, there’s a bill in the legislature for broadband access that’s now being argued as a fairness in competition bill. That’s interesting. Fair competition to them is that if you build a system, in the first year you need to make money on it. That can’t be done. The other thing was that you could only do it if you made your money through providing telephone service. So we called Baller.

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We drafted a new agreement that the council approved, and the telephone company said that they thought it was so important that the public should vote on it. They even enlisted a small group called Fiber 411. That’s also interesting. Ultimately it went to a judge who invoked a state law, and we’ve got a vote coming up.

We’ve got a lot of support, but it’s going to be a battle. We want to bring 100 megabits to every school in the parish. There’s a lot of excitement, but there are also a lot of alligators. This is a political campaign.

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