Battle over municipal broadband brews in North Carolina

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says a bill in the state senate hurt local governments’ efforts to deliver broadband service where it’s needed.

North Carolina is the latest state succumbing to industry pressure to limit the National Broadband Plan, much to the chagrin of the Federal Communications Commission.

In a statement this week addressing a bill under consideration in the state’s Senate, the Level Playing Field/Local Gov't Competition Act (S87), FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated that he had “serious concerns” regarding “new obstacles…being erected that are directly contrary to the Plan’s recommendations and goals.”

Directly addressing North Carolina’s pending bill, Clyburn said: “This piece of legislation certainly sounds goal-worthy, an innocuous proposition, but do not let the title fool you. This measure, if enacted, will not only fail to level the playing field; it will discourage municipal governments from addressing deployment in communities where the private sector has failed to meet broadband service needs. In other words, it will be a significant barrier to broadband deployment and may impede local efforts to promote economic development.”


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Local officials also expressed concern. In an article for WRAL-TV, Rep. Bill Faison (D-NC), said the bill “will make it practically impossible” for cities to provide a “fundamental service.”

The goal of the National Broadband Plan, developed by the FCC and mandated by Congress in 2009, is to ensure that every American has access to affordable broadband. Universal access will “advance consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, employee training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth,” the FCC states in the plan.

The North Carolina bill bars new municipal ISP projects from pricing their services too low or selling broadband to residents in neighboring municipalities, according to a report in Ars Technica.

Proponents of the bill say it would prevent unfair competition. Others disagree. “What it really protects, however, is the cable industry’s monopoly on broadband service, while making it nearly impossible for cities or communities to create their own broadband networks,” according to the site Creative Loafing.

Time Warner Cable and its allies are behind the North Carolina bill, according to TMCnet’s Dark Fiber Community.

According to DSL Reports in the Dark Fiber article, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and CenturyLink have lobbied for four years to ban or limit state and local governments from installing their own broadband services. TelecomTV reported that the telecom/media sector spent over $600,000 on political campaign donations in the 2010 North Carolina elections. 

As a result of these years of lobbying, a dozen states passed such laws, according to DSL Reports. South Carolina and Arkansas are also considering similar bills.

North Carolina has some of the worst broadband services in the country, reported the blog Broadband.com. In its national ranking, seven out of the 10 worst cities for broadband were in North Carolina.

“The North Carolina cities that made the list have poor upload speed, paired with relatively high Internet prices. Upload and download speeds factor equally in our calculations,” according to the post.

By contrast, many municipalities that have installed broadband have networks far superior to private networks. The fiber-optic network in Chattanooga, Tenn. installed last September, has a 1 gigabit/sec connection, about 200 times faster than the average U.S. broadband speed.

Additionally, the North Carolina towns of Salisbury and Wilson, which did install their own networks, “now offer locals fiber to the home connections that vastly outperform anything provided by incumbents like Time Warner Cable. Local TV/Internet and voice bundles are now offered not only at speeds that outperform local incumbents, but at a reasonable price point as well,” said DSL Reports.

Clyburn urged Congress to make clear that "state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks." He further described the bills as misguided and counter-productive.

“I remain concerned that when cities and local governments are prohibited from investing directly in their own broadband networks, citizens may be denied the opportunity to connect with their nation and improve their lives,” he said. “Local economies will suffer as a result, and the communities’ ability to effectively address education, health, public safety, and other social issues will be severely hampered.”

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