Scott Mooneyham: Broadband limits will deepen rural-urban divide

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

RALEIGH ó At some point, legislators ó Republicans and Democrats ó might want to wake up to the fact that an ongoing battle over high-speed Internet has nothing to do with party, political ideology or being pro- or anti-business.
It has everything to do with the urban-rural divide in North Carolina.
Any legislator from a rural community who favors a bill that would restrict municipal-owned Internet systems is voting against his or her constituents and against the ability of his or her community to recruit and retain business.
The bill has already been given the OK by one House committee and will soon be taken up by a second.
The fight over municipal-owned broadband isnít new. Itís been going on since 2005, when cable companies sued to try to stop cities and towns from building their own Internet systems.
With no success in the courts, the companies, led by Time-Warner Cable, turned their attention to the General Assembly, hoping legislators will put up a few roadblocks to the municipal-owned systems.
The cable providers are threatened by the fact that the town of Wilson has created an Internet system six times faster than local cable service. They worry that other towns and rural communities that have spotty Internet service, or whose Internet access is solely by satellite, will follow suit.
Last year, the House blocked efforts by Senate Democrats to impose a moratorium on municipal-owned Internet systems. A Senate-backed effort to require voter approval for the systems failed as well.
In many ways, the issues involved arenít very different from when investor-owned electricity providers were unwilling to bring service to small town and rural North Carolina early in the 20th century.
By the 1930s, the federal and state government were taking steps to encourage rural electrification and the formation of electric co-ops, including providing loans needed for the construction of the systems..
One of the first electric co-ops in the country was formed by Edgecombe County farmers.
Perhaps North Carolina legislators ought to contemplate what the state might look like today if their predecessors had quashed the aspirations of those farmers, rather than giving them tax breaks.
The legislation now making its way through the House doesnít involve a moratorium or a referendum.
Instead, it puts up a variety of roadblocks to the systems, including requirements that towns pay fees to county and state government in lieu of the taxes lost had a private Internet company been providing the service.
Local taxes also couldnít be used to subsidize operation of the systems; fees charged to users would have to pay for them.
Those requirements wouldnít fall on communities considered ěunservedî by private Internet providers, but private providers would have a say in that designation.
If the legislation succeeds, rural residents wonít suffer only because of fewer personal Internet options. Theyíll see fewer job opportunities because a critical aspect of business infrastructure is lacking.
Rural legislators who vote to do that to their constituents donít deserve the office.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.