By Allan Maurer
RALEIGH, NC – North Carolina legislators recently killed a proposed bill by state Senator David Hoyle (D-Gaston) that would have put a moratorium on municipal broadband efforts, but the issue is likely to arise again in January, say community activists in favor of continuing to allow cities to build their own broadband networks.
Hoyle’s bill, S1209 was just the most recent of four attempts backed by incumbent providers (AT&T, Time Warner Cable & others) to stop cities from creating their own broadband networks.
In North Carolina, the city of Wilson has built its own successful broadband network that offers higher than normal broadband Internet speeds, cable TV, and phone service at prices lower than competing private providers.
Wilson’s Greenlight service, which provides speeds 10 times faster than the incumbents typically offer, seems to have given the city some competitive muscle. Time Warner Cable, which employs 8,500 people in NC, raised rates up to 52 percent in Cary and increased prices on its digital sports and games tier by 41 percent in the Triangle. TWC did not, however, raise rates in Wilson or increase the sports and games tier price there.
Incumbents lobbying nationally
The town of Salisbury wants to launch a similar project.
But incumbent private providers are waging national lobbying campaigns to keep cities and towns from building their own networks. Eighteen other states erected barriers to stifle community broadband. Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas established a full ban.
Craig Settles who started Communities United for Broadband (http://www.communitiesforbroadband.com/)with Greensboro’s Jay Ovitorre to oppose the efforts of private providers and the legislature to limit municipal broadband, tells us, “North Carolina is the beachhead.”
Settles says, “We’re not just fighting the incumbent battles every six months. We’re also dealing with the logistics of getting people engaged on a local level.”
Settles says Google’s recent request for applications from communities for its experimental ultra-high speed broadband system, which drew responses from 40 NC municipalities, including Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro, helped engage communities in considering the issue.
Just by having a plan on what they might do with the higher speeds promised by Google may provide a spark and show municipalities a path to having better broadband, Settles believes.
So, Settles and Ovitorre decided it was time to create an online presence via Facebook, Google Groups and a Web site to get communities more focused on the issue and created Communities United For Broadband.
Supporters of bills to limit municipal broadband efforts have mounted various arguments. Incumbents say they are just “trying to level the playing field,” maintaining that municipalities have advantages private firms do not. Sen. Hoyle even maintained he was just trying to protect municipalities from themselves because they have no experience in providing broadband service.
Municipalities who want to build their own high speed networks see broadband as a utility as necessary for economic development as water, sewer and electricity.
Cities have the drive
“It touches so many things,” says Settles. “It’s necessary to get a job, to get basic healthcare information, for education, and economic development.”
He also suggests at that municipalities such as Wilson seem to have done just fine implementing a broadband system with faster speeds than incumbents generally provide with only a small city team and consultants. “Instead of moaning about creating a level playing field, the incumbents should send an engineering team to Wilson to figure out how they did it,” Settles says.
“Cities have the drive to create the next innovation in broadband. Incumbents don’t,” Settles maintains. “They own the problem and they’re in the best position to develop a solution. This is such a vital infrastructure you want to leave the door open to whoever comes up with the right solution.”
Sen. Hoyle has said he is not affected by the incumbents lobbying for the municipal broadband limits, but the Time Warner Political Action Committee contributed $6,000 to his campaign in 2009.
In 2008, AT&T and Embarq PACs contributed a total of $291,750 to legislative and statewide candidates and party committees.
The issue is bound to come up again, so Settles sees the next six months as a time of doing the trenchwork to get ready for the next battle.
“If a fairly decent number of communities move their projects forward, engaging in the process, they’ll be in a stronger position than they are currently next time the issue comes up after January,” Settles notes. For one thing, he says, “Legislators from those areas would be less likely to go against it (municipal broadband.)
For more information see:
Previously on TechJournal South:
NC considering bill to limit municipal broadband efforts (more perspective on the incumbents’ position)
Excellent resource with extensive links on municipal broadband efforts:
- Proposed bills to limit municipal broadband efforts returned to committees
- NC House votes to restrict municipal broadband efforts
- The municipal broadband battle rages on
- NC bill restricting municipal broadband efforts goes to the Governor
- They’re going after municipal broadband again in NC
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