My Turn: An Aesop's fable about Salisbury and broadband
By Reginald W. Brown
A dog jumped into a manger for its afternoon nap. When oxen returned from work to eat the straw in the manger, the dog awoke and became mad. It growled, snapped, barked and tried to bite the oxen. “What a selfish Dog!” said one of them. “It cannot eat the straw, and refuses to allow those who can.” The oxen retreated and ate grass in a nearby field.
Salisbury and its elected City Council members in the service of their fellow citizens are the oxen. The mad dog is the absentee broadband incumbent in the service of themselves and their stockholders. The ideal relationship between the incumbents and the city would be satisfied citizens and happy stockholders. Unfortunately, this is not reality. Incumbent stubbornness convinced the council that Salisbury would be better served when it can make broadband decisions as applications and technology change, rather than waiting for city needs to match stockholder interests.
The incumbents refused appeals to establish a public-private partnership. The appeals were motivated by numerous complaints forwarded to City Hall about nonexistent broadband service in parts of the city, slow and sporadic broadband speeds, and poor customer service. I would be an incumbent broadband customer today if not put on hold twice in August 2006 and had no choice other than a slow DSL service. If a potential customer were put on hold, what would be the quality of service? Would I have received a better response if the incumbent were not a virtual cable monopoly?
Fortunately, the Salisbury City Council began researching and investigating high-speed broadband fiber as a public utility in 2005. The Greenlight Fiber To The Home (FTTH) network in Wilson, with its current 5,300 subscribers and municipal wifi, impressed the council. Its memberrs were also impressed with the FTTH public utilities in Bristol, Tenn.; Lafayette, L.; and Monmouth, Ore. Today, Monmouth has more than 7,300 FTTH subscribers.
In December 2010, Salisbury municipal FTTH known as Fibrant began enrolling subscribers following four months of beta testing, five years of study, City Council meetings and public hearings. The third public hearing was held on Oct. 21, 2008, addressed the financing of FTTH and other projects through a $36,500,000 investment loan. Six citizens favored taking the loan, with one standing in opposition. The City Council voted in favor of the loan by a 5-0 vote.
The dog was not satisfied with the oxen’s retreat. It sued them and tried to pass state legislation that would hobble their efforts to eat in peace. The dog is lobbying for a bill titled “An Act to Protect Jobs and Investment by Regulating Local Government Competition with Private Business,” known as HB129/S87. Its supporters refer to the bill as the level playing field. It is designed to limit the ability of underserved North Carolina communities to make their own broadband decisions. Many of the bill’s provisions apply tough constraints on municipalities that are not applied to incumbent broadband providers.
There is a question as to how HB129/S87 will protect jobs and investments when there is nothing in the bill to explain the impact of community networks on employment. Incumbents claim, “The communications industry is an industry of economic growth and job creation.’ Unfortunately, the claim is not a reflection of reality. The recent history of the massive telecommunications incumbents is one of layoffs, consolidation and downsizing. It’s the small community-owned networks that create local employment while larger firms tend to cut or send jobs offshore. It’s the small municipal networks that hire local managers, sales staff, customer support representatives, technicians, clerks, and infrastructure construction and maintenance crews. The wages and fees collected by municipalities support local economies. One may get the impression that the effects of this bill will be to decrease the number of jobs in North Carolina.
If the dog were in competitive markets and listened to consumers, community fiber efforts would not exist. This says plenty about the lack of competition — as does the fact that the incumbents spend more on lawsuits and lobbying than broadband upgrades in underserved communities.
Reginald W. Brown lives in Salisbury.
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