Hawaii officials have plenty of experience challenging President Donald Trump’s controversial policies: from repeatedly battling the travel ban from Muslim countries to defying his do-nothing stance on climate change with a state measure to adopt the United Nations’ Paris Agreement.
Now they’re carrying the resistance into cyberspace by pushing back against the administration’s attack on net neutrality — the concept of an even playing field across the internet.
Rep. Kaniela Ing wants to explore the possibility of creating a state-owned broadband company that would adhere to the principles of net neutrality. House Bill 1995 calls for a feasibility study.
The vision of a taxpayer-owned ISP might seem far-fetched, but other locales have done it, and more are in the works. The efforts have succeeded over objections of big telecom companies.
In several places, existing internet companies blocked efforts to create taxpayer-owned internet companies, says Ing’s bill, which has passed out of the House Committee on Intrastate Commerce.
“However,” the bill continues, “the success of public companies providing internet service in municipalities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Sandy, Oregon demonstrates there are concrete, societal benefits to treating internet service like a public utility.”
“Anything can be done; it just depends on the will of the community,” said John Pless, public relations coordinator for EPB, Chattanooga’s municipally owned electric company and broadband service supplier. “The question is, ‘Do they want to do it?’”
The net neutrality bill isn’t the only effort this session aimed at sidestepping Trump’s policies.
Also in the works are House and Senate bills, modeled after sanctuary city laws in other places, to prevent local police from supporting efforts to detain or deport undocumented immigrants. The bills specifically cite “inflammatory rhetoric and harsh federal policies that vilify immigrants, divide communities and families, and create fear and suspicion among different racilal, ethnic, and ancestral groups.”
In addition, the Legislature is moving along a bill to ban the import, use, manufacture, sale and storage of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. While the Trump administration last year rejected a petition to ban the chemical, two state House committees have passed it.
Along with immigration and environmental regulation, how to regulate the internet has been a hot topic.
In 2015, with support from President Barack Obama, the Federal Communications Commission voted to classify the ISPs as common carriers, which meant that internet companies had to treat all communication the same. This meant an internet provider couldn’t create a fast lane for, say, favored sites like Netflix or The New York Times but shove competing services like Hulu or The Wall Street Journal into a slow lane that would render the sites inaccessible as a practical matter.
In December, after fielding millions of public comments on the issue, the now Republican-controlled FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality provision. In a statement, the agency said it did so to “restore the longstanding, bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework that has fostered rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom for nearly 20 years.”
House Bill 1995 also would effectively reinstate the common carrier rule by imposing net neutrality on internet companies operating in Hawaii. Broadband companies couldn’t slow down information based on content, for instance, or prioritize the flow of information based on payment.
Net neutrality bills have been proposed in 17 other states, including Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico and Washington, said Danielle Dean, policy director for communications and technology with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C.
Still, it’s not clear whether the federal law preempts the states.
“Whether states have the authority to regulate the internet … is still being debated and there are arguments on both sides,” Dean said in an email. “Generally, States have authority around broadband deployment, universal service, certifying eligible carriers, accepting compliances etc.”
Legislators aren’t the only officials pushing back against Trump’s internet policy.
Last Monday, Gov. David Ige signed an executive order saying the state will contract for internet services only with companies that agree to follow net neutrality principles.
“An open internet is critically important to our people and our economy, connecting us to the rest of the world, increasing our commerce, fostering innovation, and adding to our economic growth,” Ige said in a statement.
Hawaii joined New York, New Jersey and Montana in adopting such a policy.
Whether the executive order will have any practical effect isn’t clear.
Todd Nacapuy, Hawaii’s chief information officer, said the state uses multiple providers, including Hawaiian Telcom and Spectrum, both of which submitted testimony on House Bill 1995 saying they follow net neutrality principles anyway.
“It has never been our intention to have the capability to interfere with our customers’ access – we do not engage in paid prioritization, block lawful websites, throttle internet speed, or otherwise interfere with our customers’ lawful internet use,” Ani Menon, Hawaiian Telcom’s director of government and community affairs, testified.
The idea of a taxpayer-owned ISP is an entirely different proposition, and one that existing broadband companies oppose.
“A state-owned fiber-optic network may raise the possibility that, over time, the significant public costs of building a network might outweigh the benefits that it generates,” Spectrum’s director of state government affairs, Myoung Oh, testified.
Luis Salaveria, the director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism also took a shot at the bill, saying the state doesn’t have the money or expertise to set up its own ISP – and shouldn’t even study the idea.
“The process of creating a new government unit to provide internet service, establishing new positions, and hiring employees, even as a task force study, diverts time and resources better spent on fostering the State’s technology initiatives,” Salaveria wrote in testimony.
Still, other jurisdictions are giving the idea a serious look, although the projects are municipal and not statewide ventures. Seattle city officials have considered the idea. San Francisco has too. Fort Collins, Colorado, is moving ahead with a three- to four-year project to build and implement a broadband internet system for the metro area.
The principle of net neutrality, or “Open Internet” as Fort Collins calls it, is embedded in the project’s business plan.
In Chattanooga, which HB 1995 cites as an example of a municipality operating a broadband service provider, the network essentially piggybacked on the city’s electrical grid. The taxpayer-owned power company, EPB, was upgrading its grid with fiber optic cable in the early 2000s, says Pless, the company spokesman.
Since EPB already was connected to every home and business, it made sense to enhance the network to provide high-speed internet services, he said.
The project, which started in 2008, cost approximately $330 million, which was raised through a $111 million federal grant, $169 million in bonds and about $50 million in loans.
The company now offers phone, television and internet service and has about 95,000 business and residential customers. A basic internet package with 100 megabits per second sells for $57.99 per month. The company generated $150.1 million from its fiber optic services in 2017.
Creating a state-owned internet system by building on the existing grids in Hawaii may be more complicated. Unlike Chattanooga’s grid, which was owned by the city, most of Hawaii’s grids are owned by Hawaiian Electric Co.’s affiliated companies, the exception being Kauai’s grid, which is owned by a cooperative.
Nonetheless, HECO expressed a willingness to share its grid with others.
HECO is “open to exploring ways in which we and other utilities and government agencies could, over time, share infrastructure or platforms to meet the needs of multiple participants as we modernize our grid,” Colton Ching, senior vice president of planning and technology, said in a statement.
Working together, he said, could lower costs for consumers and the utilities.
But even a feasibility study for a state-owned broadband company has a ways to go. The bill has been referred to the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled, and the measure must make it out of the committee by Friday to stay alive.