Who should decide the future of broadband access in towns across North Carolina? Citizens and businesses in towns across the state, or a handful of large cable and phone companies? The new General Assembly will almost certainly be asked to address that question.
Fed up with poor customer service, overpriced plans and unreliable broadband access, Wilson and Salisbury decided to build their own next-generation networks. Faced with the prospect of real competition in the telecom sector, phone and cable companies have aggressively lobbied the General Assembly to abolish the right of other cities to follow in Wilson and Salisbury’s pioneering footsteps.
The decision by Wilson and Salisbury to build their own networks is reminiscent of the decision by many communities 100 years ago to build their own electrical grids when private electric companies refused to provide them inexpensive, reliable service.
An analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (http://tiny.cc/MuniNetworks) compares the speed and price of broadband from incumbent providers in North Carolina to that offered by municipally owned Greenlight in Wilson and Fibrant in Salisbury.
Wilson and Salisbury offer much faster connections at similar price points, delivering more value for the dollar while keeping those dollars in the community. For instance, the introductory broadband tiers from Wilson (10 downstream/10 upstream Mbps) and Salisbury (15/15 Mbps) beat the fastest advertised tiers in Raleigh of AT&T (6/.5 Mbps) and TWC (10/.768 Mbps). And by building state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks, subscribers actually receive the speeds promised in advertisements. DSL and cable connections, for a variety of reasons, rarely achieve the speeds promised.
The Research Triangle is a hub of innovation but is stuck with last-century broadband delivered by telephone lines and cable connections. In the Triangle, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between slow DSL from the incumbent telephone company and faster but by no means adequate cable broadband from the incumbent cable company.
A few DSL subscribers may have access to U-Verse, but most are waiting for someone in Texas (AT&T’s headquarters) to authorize the upgrade to U-Verse (faster than typical DSL but much slower than full fiber-optics). On the cable side, someone in New York (Time Warner Cable’s headquarters) decided to force subscribers in the Triangle to wait for cable upgrades long after many cities had received them.
Perhaps by the end of 2011, all businesses and residents in the Triangle will have access to the best broadband TWC and AT&T have to offer — which is still inferior to that offered by Wilson, Salisbury, any community with Verizon’s FiOS, and just about every major city in Europe or Asia.
Under state law, communities can organize and build their own broadband networks to ensure their citizens have world-class access to the Internet. The argument for preempting this local authority features two diametrically opposed claims:
- Communities should not build these networks because they always fail.
- Communities should not compete with the private sector because they will drive the existing provider(s) out of business.
Interestingly, the preponderance of evidence actually weighs against both claims. The vast majority of community fiber networks have performed extremely well against great odds. After winning the costly, frivolous lawsuits filed against communities by incumbents, community networks have successfully competed against temporary, artificially low prices by competitors who use profits from non-competitive areas to subsidize their efforts to deny any subscribers to a new network.
The few community fiber networks that have struggled against these odds are presented as the norm by industry-funded think tanks that try to scare any community considering a broadband investment.
A public monopoly?
There are few, if any, instances where community networks have driven incumbents out of business. It is true that once a community network begins operating, incumbent profits decline, often because they lower prices and increase investments — each of which greatly benefits the community. But even if that were not true, why should a local government in North Carolina care more for the profits of two massive out-of-state companies than for what is best for their citizens and the future of the community?
The incumbent lobbyists will say that local governments can just raise taxes to unfairly cross-subsidize the networks. The reality is that citizens enjoy having their taxes raised about as much as having their cable rates raised. Citizens have little recourse when cable companies raise their rates, but they can directly express their dissatisfaction with elected officials who arbitrarily raise their taxes, by voting them out of office.
Remember though, the argument here is not about whether any given community should build a network. Right now, communities make that choice themselves. For years, lobbyists have pushed the General Assembly to take that decision away, either directly or by creating a web of contrived obstacles.
On matters of essential infrastructure, communities should be free to decide whether they will build it or depend on others. For years, Mooresville and Davidson relied on Adelphia for cable access while the network fell into disrepair. In the wake of Adelphia’s bankruptcy, they chose to take it over to avoid continued similar problems from TWC. In taking it over, they found it in even worse shape than expected, resulting in higher costs to fix it. This situation, fixing the failure of the private sector, is actually used by telecom companies to argue against public ownership.
There is a very good reason so many communities are considering a variety of broadband investments: private providers are not meeting their needs. The question is whether the General Assembly wants to let communities move forward as they choose, or let out-of-state companies decide the competitiveness of the state.