Broadband law to go into effect

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Gov. Bev Perdue will neither sign nor veto a controversial broadband bill, meaning it will become law without her signature.
Perdue on Friday issued a statement critical of House Bill 129 but said the state needs “rules to prevent cities and towns from having an unfair advantage over providers in the private sector.”
A veto would have been difficult to sustain in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Salisbury won exemption for Fibrant from the legislation, which will limit how cities can operate and fund broadband systems in competition with private companies. Cable and phone companies worked for four years to pass the legislation.
Fibrant is the city’s new utility that sells Internet, cable TV and phone service. Four other N.C. cities with broadband networks up and running are exempt.
Whether Perdue had signed or vetoed the bill, “Salisbury is fine either way,” Assistant City Manager Doug Paris said.
“We have not tracked it, because for the city of Salisbury, if the governor vetoes it, that is a great result,” Paris said. “But if she doesn’t, that is also a great result because we are exempt.”
The city fought hard for the exemption, hiring a communications attorney in Washington, D.C., and a lobbyist in Raleigh. City officials made multiple trips to Raleigh to testify at committee hearings and sway legislators.
Salisbury’s efforts paid off with perhaps the most lucrative service area of all exempted cities. Salisbury can sell Fibrant throughout Rowan County, as long as town aldermen, county commissioners or school board members approve.
Spencer alderman Jeff Morris recently said the town should ask voters whether they want Fibrant in Spencer by way of a non-binding referendum.
Paris said he told Morris “that Salisbury was not ready to discuss full retail service in Spencer or another town at this time.”
“It would take many years of planning and due diligence before we could begin discussions on full retail service,” Paris said.
While Paris said holding a referendum is a moot point, he suggested a feasibility study into hooking up a couple of “community anchors” in Spencer, such as the Spencer Public Library or Town Hall.
Spencer and Salisbury staff could work together on the study, Paris said.
Spencer aldermen will discuss the issue at a future meeting.
Perdue issued her statement on the final day of her deliberation, after fielding thousands of pleas to veto or sign House Bill 129.
The veto effort was largely a fight for towns like Chapel Hill and Fayetteville, which have spent money putting fiber in the ground but are not operational yet, Paris said.
Now, “that investment will become stranded assets because they don’t have an exemption,” he said.
When the bill becomes law, rural areas will be left behind, Paris said, “where the private sector has continuously refused to provide service except satellite Internet, which is slower than dial-up and very expensive.”
The cable lobby, however, viewed Perdue’s decision to let the bill become law as a victory for taxpayers.
“We are pleased with the governor’s decision and her appreciation of the need for rules when government goes into competition with private business,” said Marcus Trathen, attorney for the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association. “This is a good day for taxpayers and for responsible government.
“We share the governor’s commitment to ensure that all North Carolinians have access to high quality and affordable service, and we look forward to working with her towards this goal.”
In her statement, Perdue said every school, household and business in North Carolina — no matter where they are — should have access to efficient and affordable broadband services.
“My concern with House Bill 129 is that the restrictions the General Assembly has imposed on cities and towns who want to offer broadband services may have the effect of decreasing the number of choices available to their citizens,” Perdue said. “For these reasons, I will neither sign nor veto this bill.
“Instead, I call on the General Assembly to revisit this issue and adopt rules that not only promote fairness but also allow for the greatest number of high quality and affordable broadband options for consumers.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.