Wednesday, June 13, 2007

North Carolina municipalities attack proposed state franchise bill as uncompetitive

Where the private sector telco/cable duopoly won't provide broadband Internet access, local governments that have long been in the utility business want to step up. But local government officials complain duopoly-backed legislation, the Local Government Fair Competition Act, is really protectionist and would result in less competition and less densely populated areas being cut off from broadband access.

Mooresville Mayor Bill Thunburg agreed. "Folks, this bill is a pig with lipstick on," he said. "The whole notion of this being a Fair Competition Act is really absurd."

Mooresville entered the broadband Internet business after years of struggle with private industry. Town leaders haven't been able to convince Time Warner to launch cable modem Internet service—the company couldn't make enough profit, they were told.

"This is why we get into that business," Thunburg said. "Private sector's not going to build out into rural communities or poor neighborhoods because there's no money in it for them. Municipalities serve those folks, and we can serve them better than private industry can because we can be sure that they've got fiber to the home." He urged the legislators to consider the need for economic development.

"You don't do that by slamming the door in the face of the poor people or rural people, and that's what this bill does," he said. "One thing's for sure: If municipalities are in the broadband business, big businesses have competition. Right now, in Mooresville, they don't have any competition."

For legislators representing rural areas, Mooresville's dilemma has a familiar ring. Rep. Angela Bryant (D-Halifax, Nash), who sits on the public utilities committee, says Nash County has had a similar experience.

"Technology's moving so fast, some of my cities and counties say that as far as they're concerned, broadband service is almost like electricity, water and natural gas in terms of how essential it would be for citizens to have it and how much of a deprivation it would be not to, just because private industry won't do it," she says. She'd like to find some balance between the concerns of the industry and needs of local communities. As it stands, she says, the bill "is putting us too much at the mercy of the private businesses."

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