County News, September 24, 2012
The success of two South Carolina counties’ plans to provide broadband access to rural areas could be in jeopardy because of a new state law that severely restricts public broadband projects. It also essentially bans new ones.
Oconee County was awarded $9.6 million for a so-called “middle-mile” project to build a fiber-optic network to serve community anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and libraries in rural areas of the county, and wholesale customers.
“The legislation, for us, is not a means to prevent us from operating our system. It’s meant to make it more difficult,” Oconee County Administrator Scott Moulder said, “and it’s meant to make it more competitive with the private market.” He doesn’t believe the statute will hamper the county’s ability to comply with the requirements of the federal grant it received, “but that’s still left to be seen, though,” he said.
Laws such as South Carolina’s are being passed in a growing number of states, according to Christopher Mitchell of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
In recent years, 19 states have passed laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband projects. And the major telephone and cable companies have opposed public broadband as anti-competitive and contributed heavily to legislators in states passing restrictive laws, he said.
“They want to prevent any new Davids. They’re Goliaths, and they want to make sure that to the extent that they can strangle David in his crib, they’re doing that,” Mitchell said. “To the extent that more networks pop up that show how much less expensive and more reliable (they are) — and faster speed can be distributed at a lower cost — these companies look worse.”
However these projects work out, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Mitchell sees rural broadband as a potential economic engine — with a parallel to electricity. “Broadband in rural areas is important to me because it improves the economy everywhere,” he said. “Rural electrification provided a turbo-boost to the economy because everyone was participating. And we see the exact same effect in broadband.”
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