Friday, February 12, 2010

Minnick: Open Internet with Reservations

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 11:16 AM

Telecom Lobbying in 2009
  • Telecom Lobbying in 2009
Between January and September 2009, phone and cable companies spent an estimated $75 million on 500 Washington lobbyists.

One of the key issues at stake in the first two years of Obama's presidency is regulation of what the government calls "open Internet principles," commonly referred to as network neutrality. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have stirred up controversy by blocking political information or competing services over their networks, as I mentioned in my broadband stimulus article this week. So the Federal Communications Commission wants to make clear rules that prohibit Internet Service Providers from discriminating based on the content Americans choose to send and receive.

Back in October, Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick and 71 other Democrats sent a letter to Obama's new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi, opposing net neutrality rules. The letter read, in part:

"As the FCC embarks on its much anticipated rulemaking addressing the subject of net neutrality, we therefore urge the Commission to carefully consider the full range of potential consequences that government action may have on network investment ... We remain suspicious of conclusions based on slogans rather than substance and of policies that restrict and inhibit the very innovation and growth that we all seek to achieve."

Public interest advocates jumped all over the letter-writers, and some critics even began calling them "Blue Bell" Democrats, suggesting they are beholden to the telecommunications giants descendant from Ma Bell.

“In parroting the misinformation put forward by the big telecom companies, The Blue Bell Caucus only condemns their constituents to inferior service and limited opportunities to succeed in an Internet-based economy,” wrote Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn.

After joining Idaho Republicans in opposing the Recovery Act, it was a pleasant surprise to hear so many Idaho broadband stimulus applicants champion the efforts of Minnick's office, particularly of staffer Marie Hattaway, in keeping them informed and even helping them apply. (See Mapping Out the Jedi Mind Trick for more on Idaho applicants.)

Colorado Rep. Jared Polis was one of the other 71 Dems, but he quickly posted to Daily Kos that nothing in the letter was against net neutrality. BW sent a follow-up email to John Foster, Minnick's senior adviser, asking for clarification on Minnick's net neutrality position and the impact of telecom lobbyists in DC. Here is what Foster had to say:

"Walt signed on for some specific reasons, foremost among them a desire to make sure that we don’t inadvertently limit the ability of small, regional telecoms (and in some cases, we’re talking service to just a couple hundred people) from expanding what they do to include broadband internet service.

Walt of course believes in a free and open Internet. But as the letter makes clear, you have to keep all segments of private enterprise in mind as you consider net neutrality — not just the Verizons and other Baby Bells, but also the guy in Grangeville or Kooskia who wants to be able to manage the flow of bandwidth for the satellite services he’s thinking of setting up. I think that’s part of what Polis was trying to say.

And as to the lobbyists, I’m not really sure. Lord knows we don’t see them in Idaho, where Walt spends most of his time. And his committee assignments mean he doesn’t see telecom folks that often. So I can’t really say."

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Proposed Fee Increase Puts Engineering Students On Edge

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 5:30 PM

Idaho's engineering colleges want their students to take one for the team.

As the state budget grows tighter, three state colleges and universities want students to pay extra fees—sizable lab fees—to be added to the tuition for junior and senior students.

“Are there exceptions for nontraditional students if we can’t afford it?” asked Glen Purnell, during a Boise State University workshop on the proposal today.

Cheryl Schrader, the Boise State College of Engineering dean, answered that there were no planned exceptions, but that the fees would be considered on applications for federal financial aid, which is not possible with current lab and course fees (that would be dropped under the new program).

The colleges of engineering at Boise State, University of Idaho and Idaho State University are holding workshops to announce the proposal before it is submitted to the State Board of Education in April. The colleges passed out a copy of the proposal in draft form.

“There is an inherently higher cost to educating engineers than most other students,” the draft states. “Initially, funds are expected to be concentrated in the areas of laboratory equipment, course support, professional advising and enhanced student support services such as internship coordination and placement.”

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Getting (Close to) a Pulitzer

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 4:41 PM

Steve Fainaru
  • Steve Fainaru
Not sure if anything in the Weekly has ever been up for a Pulitzer Prize, though rumor is 2010 is going to be our year. (What? You haven't heard that rumor?)

But citydesk is planning on hitting up 2008 Pulitzer winner Steve Fainaru next week when he comes to Boise State to ponder the idea: "What would happen if there was a war and nobody covered it."

Fainaru won the top journo prize for his Washington Post series on private contractors in Iraq.

Of course, that is not such a far-fetched idea. There are plenty of wars, including our unmanned drone-fought war in Pakistan and wars across Africa that barely get covered. And then there are the secret wars in which private companies do our nation's bidding and we provide them with tax-payer supported prostitutes and strippers.

Fainaru, who has been writing about violence along the Mexican border, will speak at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16 in the Morrison Center. His lecture is free and open to the public.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hemp Bill Dies on Tie Vote

Posted By on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 at 4:42 PM

An effort to encourage the feds to decriminalize industrial hemp died a quick death today in the House Agricultural Affairs Committee when five Republicans, all sitting in a row, voted to not even print the bill.

The print hearing, which is required before a bill gets a full public hearing, started off with an apparent well of support behind the resolution. Not only was committee chairman Tom Trail sponsoring it, but Reps. Eric Anderson, a Republican from Priest Lake and Brian Cronin, a Democrat from Boise were there to back the bill as well.

All three presented the ban on hemp as an economic issue. Trail said Canadian farmers get $200,000 an acre for the seeds. Anderson said that even car fabrics now use the stuff.

"Probably not a day goes by when we are not around a hemp product," he said.

And Cronin brought a box of hemp milk (an Idaho dairy lobbyist countered in the hallway afterward that it's not in fact milk since it did not come from a mammary gland) which is available up the street at the Boise Co-op, to demonstrate the hypocrisy that you can by the by-products, but you can't grow the raw materials.

But Rep. Dennis Lake questioned the sponsors on why hemp was banned in the first place, raising concerns that hemp and marijuana plants appear very similar and may present problems for law enforcement.

Early season hemp plants north of Dauphin in Canada where hemp cultivation is legal and encouraged.
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Early season hemp plants north of Dauphin in Canada where hemp cultivation is legal and encouraged.

While they do appear similar, Trail asserted that they are grown in different fashions—hemp is a row crop— and that marijuana growers would be making a big mistake hiding their plants in fields of hemp because they would cross pollinate and dilute the effects of the marijuana.

Trail also assured the committee that industrial hemp contains very little to no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

"To get a high you'd have to build a cigar the size of a telephone pole," he said, quoting a Canadian expert.

Cronin pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper and that the wagon trains out west were covered in hempen cloth. But that was not enough to convince the committee, which voted 5-5 to send the resolution back to Trail.

Anderson and Cronin said after the hearing that they would continue to work with law enforcement and other interests to push a full discussion on the merits of hemp farming to Idaho.

"This was important to have this hearing today," Anderson said. "It's an important dialogue that needs to be heard."

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Resolution to Support Local Food and Farmers Markets

Posted By on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 at 3:48 PM

Canyon County farmer Janie Burns, with support from the chairmen of both the House and Senate agriculture committees, introduced a resolution this morning to "encourage healthy, locally grown food production, distribution and consumption in the state of Idaho."

Burns went through a lengthy Idaho food history, recalling her parents' changing attitudes toward food as Americans went to the moon and strove to be modern. She recalled the time when they stopped raising their own chickens and started getting eggs at the supermarket instead.

Burns testified to the dramatic decline in food production and processing in Idaho: in 1953 there were 19 flour mills in Idaho and today there is only one.

"Slowly, almost imperceptible, our food started coming from somewhere else," she said.

House Agricultural Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Trail spoke about the economic impact of the long-standing Moscow Farmers Market, which he said brings in $100,000 a week to producers and even more in terms of community cohesion. Rep. Mack Shirley noted that Idaho Falls started a Farmers Market this year as well and moved to introduce the bill.

The resolution will be available online later today and will be scheduled for a hearing.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mapping out the Jedi Mind Trick

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 4:32 PM

One Idaho broadband visionary says big internet providers are playing Jedi mind tricks on us (from the Dark Side), trying to convince us we’re on a superhighway in the big leagues while keeping us bumping along happily on our donkey carts.

In tomorrow’s BW, we’ll talk about some of the small, nimble rural broadband projects that are hoping for a piece of the billions of dollars of stimulus funding coming out of Washington, D.C. in the very near future. These are people who are taking the initiative to tailoring their local information superhighway, rather than just putting up with whatever the big guys give them.

For Couer d'Alene Tribe IT director Valerie Fast-Horse, broadband means participation in information, rather than being a passive recipient of it.

Quest Aircraft Co. in Sandpoint needs a good Internet.
  • Quest Aircraft
  • Quest Aircraft Co. in Sandpoint needs a good Internet.

"Broadband allows two-way communication and use of the applications that are out there like video and social networking without interference, without any buffering, without any lag time."

The Couer d'Alene Tribe has plans to deploy high-speed Internet to over 3,700 unserved and underserved households in Plummer, Worley and the reservation itself. Her project is one of twelve by Idaho-based groups seeking broadband stimulus funds from the Recovery Act created by Congress last year.

To prove the need for high-speed, Fast-Horse provided the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service with data on 800 local census blocks. She collected detailed data on who had Internet—some don't even have phones—using a GIS device and by driving up and down county streets, tribal roads and state highways.

"I like that the administration allowed us to do census blocks, even though it was tedious to do it," she said. "Because we're rural (the maps of) our households aren't tidy and neat. We have farms that are way out in the boondocks."

"Tribal lands have as low as five percent broadband adoption," said Hannah Miller, national field director of the Media and Democracy Coalition. Made up of two dozen organizations who amplify the public's voice in shaping telecommunications policy, their work is necessary to protect the public interest, she says, because crucial policies are often determined by politicians who hear only from lobbyists.

"Our role is to try to encourage as many community partners to get involved as possible. Community involvement is what makes or breaks this thing. You're asking folks to participate in something a great deal of people are intimidated by."

Soon the public will be better informed about broadband availability than ever before, says Idaho Regional Optical Network general manager Victor Braud, thanks to the mapping contract Idaho signed last year with LinkAmerica Alliance. While other states signed contracts with Connected Nation, widely criticized for acting in the interest of large incumbent Internet providers, LinkAmerica vice president Mike Wilson insists their effort is not funded by any carriers.

"Carriers want to make sure there's at least some return on investment for build-out," he commented. "Without data showing what is truly underserved and what is unserved it is hard. We do some pretty granular mapping, but we won't just send data to D.C., we are also developing an interactive Web mapping tool. What will be available to consumers will depict covered roads and communities by speed and by technology."

State of Idaho Deptartment of Administration Chief Technology Officer Greg Zickau is "very pleased" with LinkAmerica, though he pointed out the state will be careful with mapping data, which is considered proprietary. "We absolutely don't want to put any provider's proprietary information in danger," he said.

Gem State Community Development consultant Sharon Fisher has covered broadband for since 2007. She looks forward to the completion of the mapping project, pointing out 768 kilobits per second, the official definition of broadband speed, is not fast enough for most web functions.

"At that speed you're certainly not going to be able to watch video in real time," she said. "It's probably enough for basic surfing. In 1936 only 11 percent of rural areas nationwide had electricity so they created the Rural Electrification Act. Broadband Internet is the electricity of this century. You can't run a business without it anymore."

Ernie Bray, project manager for Panhandle Area Council's proposed fiber optic network, agrees. "Unfortunately, people drink a lot of the incumbent carrier Kool-aid," Bray told BW. "I call it the Jedi Mind Trick, they say 'if we don't offer it, you don't need it. If you needed it, we would provide it.' Well, they don't."

Christine Frei, executive director for Clearwater Economic Development Association agrees there's not enough return on investment for big companies to bridge the remaining digital divide, and that is why she supports applications by the Nez Perce Tribe and First Step Internet in Moscow.

"It's one thing to put equipment into buildings and another thing to put money into infrastructure to connect them. Currently there is no connectivity that runs north to south in the state of Idaho. Everything goes out to Washington and Oregon."

"Rural areas should have something that allows them equal opportunities," said the mapper, Wilson. "In rural areas of Idaho, how are dairy farmers monitoring their output? Are they doing it manually or are they using wireless delivery of output? There are all kinds of practical uses of broadband."

Miller, the activist, hopes the stimulus delivers funds to projects that improve rural access to affordable high-speed Internet. "There's a different moral weight to these phone and cable companies than if they had, say, a peanut brittle monopoly. This is about access to information."

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Harvard Prof on Decriminalization

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 2:59 PM

Harvard Prof Jeffrey Miron
  • Harvard Uni
  • Harvard Prof Jeffrey Miron
Remember last year, when BW asked the question: Is Idaho Ready for Medical Marijuana? Well, it looks like maybe not, though Rep. Tom Trail, a Republican from Moscow, promises to make an effort once more.

We wrote about Trail's bill medical marijuana bill this week.

While researching the article, Unda' the Rotunda caught up with Harvard Economics Professor Dr. Jeffrey Miron, an outspoken advocate for the legalization of marijuana. Miron estimates that Idaho spends roughly $38 million a year on fighting marijuana. The United States, as a whole, spent more than $10 billion a year on controlling marijuana in recent years.

If the United States were to legalize marijuana and tax it, just as they do now with alcohol, the potential new revenue, in addition to savings could be in the neighborhood of $10-14 billion, according to Miron and his study. Idaho could realize $10.48 million in tax revenue, Miron estimates.

"On any dimension, it doesn’t make sense to prohibit it. Inevitably, some people will abuse the substance. Some people will drive under the influence of marijuana, just like they do with alcohol. That’s why policies would be created to punish those who drive under the influence of marijuana. However, it doesn’t make any sense to limit use by people that doesn’t hurt anybody else," Miron said.

Miron says that government control over the drug would be more effective than a ban of the substance entirely.

"I've done a lot of research by looking at it with economic tools; looking at the way that prohibition encourages drug use. I think that a substantial fraction of the homicide and other violence in the US is a result of prohibition. If you think about reports from the newspaper and other media organizations, an awful lot of those reports are not drug-related, but factually drug prohibition related. They’re drug wars over turf, gang disputes; possession charges…" Miron said.

State sales tax has been imposed on medical marijuana in some states generating $200 million in California alone, according to Anita Gore of the California Board of Equalization. Studies have suggested that on top of that sales tax, an extra "sin tax" or excise tax could be placed on the substance as well, were it sold, regulated and distributed to adults just like alcohol.

"I think it comes from the fact that if you push some things into underground markets, people can’t solve their disputes with lawyers, they solve their disputes other ways. If you drive something underground, you also drive up the price… that’s what drives up the cost. Their costs drive up the price of illicit activities, you have to conduct in secret, you have to bribe the police, instead of just selling in a store," Miron said.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taking the "Evil" Out of Corporate Moneys

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2010 at 4:31 PM

The House State Affairs Committee this morning sent a Joint Memorial—that's when the Idaho Legislature decides to send a letter to Congress—back to its Democratic sponsors, demanding they be nicer to corporations and at least a little mean to unions.

Rep. Brian Cronin, a Boise Democrat, agreed to both changes and hopes to resubmit the document to the committee for a potential hearing.

The memorial urges Congress to "negate the deleterious effects of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission." That's the decision that defines corporations as people with regard to electioneering expenditures.

You can read the decision here [pdf].

The memorial starts out downright patriotic:"We the People of the state of Idaho are endowed with certain unalienable rights that are expressly conveyed to people, and not to corporations ..."

Seems obvious enough. But the electioneering law that the Supremes negated applies equally to corporations and unions, and the first draft of the Idaho memorial left out mention of labor unions (though Idaho AFL-CIO boss Dave Whaley sat in the back of the hearing). So several Republicans suggested Cronin take his letter back and add some language reigning in labor as well.

The committee also got hung up on the word "evil" which appeared in the text in the context of a 1907 Senate report on campaign finance. The report stated: "[t]he evils of the use of [corporate] money in connection with political elections are so generally recognized that the committee deems it unnecessary to make any argument in favor of the general purpose of this measure."

We have no argument either. Just don't be evil.

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Idaho Missionaries Charged with Child Abduction

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2010 at 3:11 PM

citydesk just got a call from the BBC Scotland seeking local reaction to the charges filed against 10 U.S. missionaries in Haiti.

Haitian authorities have charged the group—led by Laura Silsby, a member of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian—with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, according to the BBC, which seems to have a crack presence on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

"I feel good," Silsby told reporters today, as the group was loaded into a van outside the courthouse. "I trust in God."

Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian.
  • Nathaniel Hoffman
  • Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian.

In case you missed it, the missionaries, eight of whom are from Idaho, went down to Haiti under the auspices of Silsby's charity, New Life Children's Refuge, to "save" orphans in the wake of the earthquake there. But many of the 33 orphans they gathered up and put on a bus headed to the Dominican Republic turned out to not be orphans at all.

The 10 were arrested last week and charged today, after several days of speculation that they might be sent home to face charges.

The Idaho Statesman also revealed today that Silsby is not all that she claims. Silsby has faced eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims in recent years, her house was foreclosed on last year, she has racked up a long list of speeding tickets and was recently divorced, the Statesman's Katy Moeller reported today.

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