LAFAYETTE, La. — Advocates in four Louisiana cities held rallies on Tuesday, seeking to convince Sen. John Kennedy to vote to block the Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to overturn network neutrality rules enacted during the Obama administration.
The actions were organized by Team Internet, a distributed organization led by Fight For The Future, Free Press Action Fund, and Demand Progress. The protests took place at Kennedy’s offices in Lafayette, Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, according to Laila Abdelaziz of FFTF.
“Weeks after the FCC’s wildly unpopular vote to repeal net neutrality protections, Internet users throughout the U.S. are still angry and they’re looking to their members of Congress to overrule the FCC’s repeal,” Abdelaziz told 50 States in an email. “Senator Kennedy has made it clear that he knows how important preserving the open Internet is to all Americans so that’s why small business owners, educators, students, and people from across the political spectrum came together in Louisiana today to ask Senator Kennedy to be an Internet hero and publicly support the net neutrality CRA vote. We know that Senator Kennedy is listening, now we hope he responds.”
Layne St. Julien led the Lafayette effort, which drew about 20 people to a busy intersection outside of Kennedy’s Lafayette office. The participants waived homemade signs calling on Kennedy to “Be a Hero. Stop the FCC,” as well as signs printed for the events by FFTF.
St. Julien is a veteran of Lafayette’s 2005 fiber campaign, which secured voter approval for a citywide fiber-to-the-premises network that delivers up to a gigabit of symmetrical bandwidth (same upload speeds as download) through the publicly-owned Lafayette Utilities System. She said that campaign created a level of community awareness about the Internet that has given the somewhat obscure issue of net neutrality traction in Lafayette.
“The fiber fight gave us all a good grounding in technology and network issues,” St. Julien told 50 States after delivering the net neutrality petitions to Kennedy’s staff. “We understand the power of networks here. We’ve benefited from the presence of network competition in our community. We’d like to see the rest of the country see those benefits, as well.”
Ironically, the LUS Fiber System has vowed it will not impose preferential pricing on platforms that seek to use Lafayette’s fiber network. LUS buys its Internet access through wholesale network providers.
Other bandwidth providers in Lafayette include privately held Cox Communications and publicly traded AT&T. Cox and AT&T are the primary providers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge; Comcast is the cable provider in Shreveport. Qwest (formerly CenturyTel) is based in Monroe and has a relatively small footprint in rural Louisiana dating back to its days as a rural telephone provider.
The Role of ALEC
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the vehicle through which corporate interests have influenced the development of state laws for more than a decade, has been active in the fight to repeal network neutrality regulations at the federal level. It has also been very active in Louisiana. During the Jindal years, the Louisiana Legislature’s website contained a link to ALEC on its homepage; the link has now been moved to another page within the main site.
ALEC’s fingerprints are all over Louisiana telecommunications legislation that has become law in this century, including an attempt to kill the LUS fiber project before it got started.
BellSouth (now AT&T) and Cox proposed an ALEC-drafted bill that became known as the Local Government Fair Competition Act when it was signed into law in 2004 by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco. In its original form, the bill would have prohibited Louisiana municipalities from entering the bandwidth business — but Blanco, a resident of Lafayette, promised city and parish leaders that she would veto any bill that they felt stifled their project. Lafayette leaders, having already cleared the most odious hurdles the new law erected, were content to leave in place a series of requirements giving opponents (incumbent providers like Cox, Comcast, and AT&T) the chance to publicly question the advisability of a proposal through analysis and public hearings.
Following the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans created a city-owned wifi network to facilitate the recovery; hundreds of miles of wiring owned by Cox and BellSouth had been swamped by the flooding. BellSouth, as its services were restored, threatened to sue New Orleans under the provisions of the Local Government Fair Competition Act if it did not take down the wifi network. Rather than fight, the city complied.
The LUS fiber project was the target of litigation even after voters approved a $125 million bond issue to finance the project on July 16, 2005. One lawsuit went all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court. It took LUS three years to prevail, but it did.
In 2008, the Louisiana Legislature enacted the ALEC-supported statewide video franchise regime, which effectively ended the requirement that cable providers offer services to every home in cities, towns and parishes where they obtained a franchise. In addition to reducing franchise revenue to local governments, the new law signed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal allowed telecommunications providers to cherry-pick neighborhoods for service, which created an uneven distribution of services and amplified the digital divide in Louisiana.
In 2011, Jindal refused an $80.6 million rural broadband grant from the Obama administration, part of the stimulus package passed in response to the Great Recession of 2008. As with the statewide video franchise agreement, private telecommunications providers urged Jindal to reject the stimulus money and protect their market share.
The Bipartisan Effort
St. Julien and two other activists were allowed into Kennedy’s small Lafayette office. There, St. Julien gave Jay Vicknair, Kennedy’s deputy state director, petitions with signatures from more than 6,000 Louisianans calling on Kennedy to vote to overturn the FCC’s action to give network providers discriminatory pricing control over their networks.
Vicknair said Kennedy’s offices have been experiencing heavy call traffic on network neutrality this month. “It’s created the most phone and email traffic since healthcare last year,” Vicknair said.
Vicknair added that Kennedy was “listening to both sides” in the debate. He agreed with St. Julien’s characterization of the effort to repeal the FCC rule as bipartisan.
Fight For The Future says that under the Congressional Review Act, simple majorities in the House and Senate can reverse the FCC’s decision to repeal network neutrality rules. They claim to have 50 votes in the Senate. Kennedy’s vote could be that 51st vote. Prospects in the House remain uncertain at this time.