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Bill exempts cities dealing with broadband

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY ó Salisburyís efforts to keep proposed state laws from affecting Fibrant got a boost last week..
N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican who represents Cabarrus County, introduced legislation Monday that competes with the embattled House Bill 129, ěLevel Playing Field.î
Salisbury fought House Bill 129. The cable industry backed it.
Hartsellís competing legislation, Senate Bill 511 or ěCities/Communications Service,î offers full exemption for Salisbury and other cities with networks up and running. His bill defines how government can operate broadband businesses.
N.C. Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican representing Wilson, is one of the primary sponsors. Like Fibrant, Wilsonís Greenlight utility competes with private industry to sell Internet, cable and phone services.
Although Salisbury and Wilson are exempt from House Bill 129, the proposed law would ban Salisbury from selling Fibrant to all but four other towns and prevent Wilson from selling Greenlight outside the city limits, which Greenlightís director called a death knell.
ěInstead of killing us outright, youíre just giving us a slow poison pill and weíll die eventually,î said Dathan Shows, assistant city manager for broadband and technical services.
Senate Bill 511, however, gives Internet cities ěa full and complete exemption and doesnít have 15 different hoops you have to jump through to get there,î Shows said.
Hartsell was tight-lipped last week about pitting his legislation against House Bill 129, but he will have direct influence over his competition.
Hartsell serves as co-chairman the Senate Finance Committee, where House Bill 129 landed last week, a day after Hartsell filed his opposing bill. Although Shows said he wants House Bill 129 to die in committee, Hartsell pledged to bring the bill to a vote at some point.
But first, his committee will hold a hearing in the bill Wednesday, when Hartsell said heís ěconfident that others will identify alternativesî to House Bill 129.
Hartsellís bill awaits in Rules and Operations of the Senate. Hartsell is a member of the committee.
Salisbury, Wilson, Morganton, Mooresville and Davidson argue itís not fair for the state to change the rules after they borrowed millions of dollars to legally build or buy broadband networks.
ěThe state approved our debt and Salisburyís debt,î Shows said. ěTo retroactively go back and change that is simply unfair. Municipal broadband operations must be run like a business, and like a business, either theyíre growing or dying.î
The cable lobby gave a lukewarm review of Hartsellís bill.
ěThere are a lot of potential approaches to the problem of competition by cities competing with private business,î Marcus Trathen, an attorney for the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association said in an email to the Post.
ěWe think (House Bill) 129 is a preferable approach because it better protects taxpayers and it better ensures fair competition with the government,î Trathen said.
Hartsell said his bill will ěhelp folks work out their differences.î
His legislation does not include many of the restrictions in House Bill 129 and would not require voter approval before a city got into the broadband business.
Hartsellís bill has cities taking bids from private companies to offer telecommunications services. Cities can build their own systems if private industry canít or wonít do it for them.
State lawmakers must address city-owned networks in light of continuing financial problems with the system Mooresville and Davidson bought from a defunct private company, Hartsell said.
ěWe are trying to avoid a replication of that situation,î he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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