It is stunning any legislator can look at the constituents they serve in rural North Carolina and think, “‘These people don’t need the same high quality Internet access now being delivered in Charlotte and the Triangle. They should be happy with whatever cable and telephone companies offer.”
But that’s just what I think Representatives Jason Saine and Michael Wray are implying in their recent opinion piece on community broadband networks.
By supporting U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ legislation to remove local authority for building broadband networks, the two lawmakers are siding with big cable and telephone firms over their own communities.
It is hardly a secret that Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others are investing too little in rural communities. The majority of residents and local businesses in North Carolina have no real choice today and can expect their bills to go up tomorrow.
Areas served by coops or locally-rooted companies are more likely to see upgrades because they are accountable to the community in ways that national firms are not. Local firms are more willing to invest in better networks and keep prices low because they live in the community.
North Carolina communities stuck with no broadband or slow DSL and cable at best are disadvantaged in economic development and property values. This is why hundreds of local governments have already invested in fiber optic networks — with remarkable success.
Wilson is one example, where the city built the first gigabit fiber optic network in the state. The network has paid all its bills on time and the largest employers in the area all subscribe to it. One local business, which was a vocal opponent of the idea at first, now credits the municipal fiber network with helping her business to expand and reach new clients. The General Manager of Central Computer, Tina Mooring, argues that restrictions on municipal networks hurt the private sector, noting that her clients in areas near Wilson strongly desire access to the high capacity services they cannot get from cable and DSL networks.
Just across the Virginia state line is another approach, where Danville has built a fiber network that is available to private ISPs to offer services. The network has led to new investment and high tech jobs as well as helping existing businesses to expand. Not only have they paid all their bills on time, they make enough net income to contribute $300,000 per year to the general fund.
The fastest citywide network in the nation, offering 10 Gbps was just announced in Salisbury, north of Charlotte. Again, city owned.
This strategy is rarely a partisan issue at the local level. Some 75 percent of the communities that have a citywide municipal network voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. From Maine to Louisiana to California, municipal broadband is a pragmatic question of whether it will improve quality of life and spur economic development.
U.S. Senator Thom Tillis’ legislation to challenge the FCC is not a win for local autonomy. It is an example of distant officials micro-managing local issues.
It is unfathomable the state Attorney General, whose job it is to protect residents and local businesses, has sided with Time Warner Cable and AT&T rather than champion the cause of fast and affordable Internet access for North Carolinians. The state is literally using taxpayer dollars to protect the monopolies of big telecom firms that prevent communities from having a real choice in providers. This is yet another decision that should be made locally, not in Raleigh or D.C.
Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and is @communitynets on Twitter. He writes regularly on MuniNetworks.org.