The Florida legislature has endorsed a broad-reaching communications bill that will enable municipalities to offer broadband services — but only in markets where specified services are not available commercially.
The new policy sets out a series of steps that will require that cities make their whole process public and that any broadband services that are offered adhere to the same federal and state rules applied to commercial operators.
The new policy demands that any city contemplating broadband services notify the state Department of Revenue — and therefore all commercial providers — 40 days prior to a debate on offering new services. This notification covers services, including wireless fidelity or broadband over power line, contemplated at speeds of 144 Kbps and higher that will be offered for a fee.
There are no regulatory requirements if a city wants to build a communications network strictly for its own use.
The notification gives commercial providers a chance to bid to build the desired infrastructure. If the city still determines to set up a broadband network on its own, it must hire an expert to conduct a feasibility study then hold two public hearings.
After those hearings, if the city still plans to move forward, it must state its plans in a formal ordinance then call for a public referendum.
That ballot measure must include the projected per year cost of operation of the proposed project.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who has publicly stated his opposition to municipal broadband competition and his wish that telecommunications be unfettered by regulation, is expected to sign the bill.
Charles Dudley, legislative counsel for the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association, said the bill was floated because, although not many cities have contemplated video delivery systems, several have contemplated Wi-Fi or wireline data systems. There was no framework for the development process of those systems, he said, adding the new bill gives commercial competitors and citizens a chance to participate in the process.
“When the regional tax collector is your competitor, you’re concerned about that,” he said.
Cities will not be able to use the power of eminent domain to seize property for their systems, can’t use predatory pricing and must treat their own broadband systems they same way they regulate commercial operations.
The broad-reaching communications bill also clarified some issues relating to the taxation and regulation of voice-over-Internet protocol services.
The state has a unique, simplified telecommunications tax that replaces local franchise fees and taxes with a single fee to the state. Newly approved clarifications could benefit Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable when they assume ownership of Adelphia Communications Inc.: the bill stipulates local governments can’t charge application, transfer, renewal or other fees to dealers of communications services.
The Florida Public Service Commission is also blocked by the new bill from trying to regulate broadband services, regardless of provider or platform. This would include VoIP.
VoIP services are taxable in the state, according to a stipulation in another bill also passed by the legislature.