North Carolina Editorial: State Restriction on Local Telecom Authority Has to Go

Approximately 20 U.S. states have some form of legal restriction that creates barriers when local communities want to develop publicly owned Internet infrastructure. In North Carolina, where the state experiences a severe rural/urban digital divide, people are fed up with poor service from influential telephone and cable companies. Folks like Ned Barnett, Opinion Editor from the News & Observer, are calling on elected officials to remove the state’s restriction so local governments can do all they can for better connectivity.

Things Must Change

Barnett’s recent editorial begins out of frustration as he describes how unreliable Internet access forced him to take pen to paper. His own connection prevented him from tending to emails, doing online research, and his phone service also suffered due to momentary loss of connectivity at his office. He goes on to consider how the annoying but temporary inconvenience to him is a way of life for many in rural areas of his state.

While North Carolina has many of the same challenges as other states in getting rural folks online — lack of interest from national ISPs, challenging geography that complicates deployment — Barnett correctly zeroes in on the state’s restrictive HB 129. The law prevents communities with existing broadband infrastructure from expanding to neighboring communities and puts requirements in place that are so onerous, they make it all but impossible for communities considering similar investments to move forward.

Barnett rightly points out that the true purpose of the law was to protect national ISPs from competition, securing their position as monopolies and duopolies. He describes the problems with the state's approach and what North Carolinians have faced in the aftermath:

For one, Internet access isn't a consumer product. It's as basic as access to a phone, electricity or indoor plumbing. Secondly, there isn't any real competition involved. Rural areas often are limited to one provider offering slow access.

The Problem is Real

People familiar with the situation in North Carolina typically know the story of Wilson and Pinetops. When the FCC preempted HB 129 in 2015, Wilson expanded its municipal fiber optic network, Greenlight, to the small community of Pinetops where the community was struggling along on DSL, dial-up, and satellite connections. Businesses, residents, and local government facilities in Pinetops immediately felt the positive impact. When the state won a lawsuit to have the decision reversed on the grounds that the FCC has overstepped its authority, people in the small community faced losing the high-quality connectivity they needed to stay competitive.

logo-greenlight-nc-2014.png For a time, Wilson offered Greenlight to Pinetops for free so as not to run afoul of the law. The state legislature passed a bill in 2017 that allowed Greenlight to serve Pinetops until a private sector provider brings fiber optic connectivity to the town. Late last year, the incumbent cable provider announced plans to build fiber in Pinetops, but due to ambiguities in the bill adopted by the legislature, people in Pinetops worry that most of the community will be back to their old inadequate Internet access. 

It’s possible that the incumbent is taking advantage of these ambiguities to drive Greenlight out of the community rather than because it has the desire to serve the small town of 1,300 residents. In the past, they stated that the community wasn’t populated enough to justify investing in the infrastructure, but with the state legislature’s bill behind them, incumbent Suddenlink  could be taking advantage of the situation to flex their muscles.

More for North Carolina

Blair Levin is another advocate for better connectivity who has called on the state to remove its restrictive law. At a WRAL TechWire event in 2016, he told an audience in Wilson, "When the new General Assembly returns to Raleigh, tell the assembly to tear down the law that prevents faster, cheaper broadband."

As Barnett writes in his editorial, the pressure is on in North Carolina to get the entire state connected. The Governor wants to include $20 million in the budget for broadband connectivity with a special focus on rural areas. The North Carolina League of Municipalities released a report in March that encourages changes in state law to allow local communities to partner with private sector entities.

From the editorial:

These efforts are encouraging, but bolder steps are needed. The first one should be repeal of the law that has effectively halted the development of new municipal broadband systems. That bill was a pet project of then-House Speaker and now U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on behalf of his friends in the cable industry. Now it's widening the state's economic rural-urban divide.

Barnett quotes Tom Wheeler, who was FCC Chairman in 2015 when the Commission preempted North Carolina’s harmful HB 129:

Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler saw it differently. He said, “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price."

Amen to that.