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Editorial: Fibrant war, one down, more to go

The war metaphor is often overused in politics, with people talking of battles, clashes, victories and defeats. But the cable industry is waging nothing less than war against Salisbury and other municipalities that have developed their own broadband networks. If the industry succeeds, it will defeat not only city government but also city taxpayers and residents.
Time for a call to arms.
The city won a key battle last week when the House Finance Committee voted 26-1 to exempt Salisbury and other existing municipal systems from House Bill 129. Called the “Level Playing Field” bill, it is designed to curtail local governments’ ability to get into the broadband business. The House approved the revised bill Thursday, 80-32. (A third and final vote will be taken Monday.) But that was just one battle. More will come as the matter works its way through the state Senate. The war is far from over.
Newly elected Rep. Harry Warren has been a key ally for the city. A Salisbury resident, Warren offered the amendment to HB 129 to exempt municipalities with existing systems. For these towns — Salisbury, Wilson, Davidson, Mooresville and Morganton — the debate over whether government should get into the broadband business is moot. They’re in it. And the last thing they need is an assault on their efforts to make those systems successful.
Lawmakers who want to appear business-friendly face a question — at what price? Does protecting the cable industry justify crippling these cities’ systems and moving the burden to taxpayers? If advocates for HB 129 really want to protect citizens from doomed municipal ventures, as they say, they would avoid hurting the existing systems.
And let’s talk about level playing fields. When Salisbury launched Fibrant, Time Warner lowered its rates — not too difficult for a company that reported fourth-quarter revenue of $7.81 billion last year. In its cable networks division alone, total revenue rose 14 percent to $3.3 billion.
And they’re worried about small cities like Salisbury having an unfair advantage?
City officials saw a need for broadband service. Time Warner and AT&T were not ready to extend that level of service to all parts of Salisbury, so the city legally and publicly launched its own network. If things go according to the city’s plan, revenue from the network will pay off the $30 million bond that built Fibrant. It’s in taxpayers’ best interests to see Fibrant succeed — which calls into question the motives of the Rowan County Tea Party, which called for a sunset clause to lift the city’s exemption in three to five years.
No doubt we’ll hear more about that as the battlefield moves from the House to the Senate. Salisbury cannot afford to lose, and neither can its taxpayers.

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