FCC could knock down state law, open door for Fibrant’s expansion

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 7, 2015

City officials praised the Federal Communications Commission chairman’s proposal to dismantle  state laws that regulate municipal broadband services while state legislators see the idea as an intrusion by the federal government.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement Monday saying communities should be able to make their own decisions about building broadband networks if private providers can’t meet their needs.

Wheeler was referring to a petition from two cities that, like Salisbury, have their own broadband networks: Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn.

“After looking carefully at petitions by two community broadband providers asking the FCC to pre-empt provisions of state laws preventing expansion of their very successful networks, I recommend approval by the Commission so that these two forward-thinking cities can serve the many citizens clamoring for a better broadband future,” Wheeler said.

North Carolina’s law regulating municipal broadband was passed in 2011. Lawmakers said the point of the law is to make sure public broadband systems don’t have a competitive edge on the private sector.

Salisbury already had its broadband system, Fibrant, in place when the law was passed. The city built the network, and borrowed tens of millions of dollars to pay for it, without holding a public vote on the issue. The law passed in 2011 requires municipalities to hold a public vote before they can borrow money to build a network.

But the law does restrict Salisbury’s ability to expand Fibrant outside of pre-set boundaries — mostly the city limits. But if the state’s law, and ones like it across the country, are dismantled by the FCC, Fibrant could easily expand to other areas in parts of the county and possibly beyond.

“Love that. Love that,” Mayor Paul Woodson said about the chairman’s statement.

He said the law being weakened or struck down completely would be great for Salisbury because it could expand Fibrant to other municipalities.

Interim City Manager John Sofley said there are people who want Fibrant but are on the wrong side of the network’s boundary because they’re literally on the other side of the street.

He said the law does allow Fibrant to expand outside the city limits to serve businesses and schools.

Talking about the reason for building a broadband network in the first place, Woodson said, “We had to differentiate ourselves from other cities.”

And then the Legislature tried to shut it down, he said.

Woodson said if the FCC does take action, he could see Fibrant lines potentially running all the way to Concord in a few years.

He added the city has interest from investors who are intrigued by the possibility of expanding of Fibrant.

Kent Winrich, the city’s new director of broadband services, said if the state law is dismantled it would be a great opportunity for Salisbury to come together with the county and the other municipalities.

He said people think access to high-speed Internet is becoming a necessity in order to survive in society, and that people should be able to have other options if they feel they’re not being best served by private vendors.

A final decision on the issue is expected at the FCC’s meeting Feb. 26. If the commission does take action against state laws, it will likely result in lawsuits filed by the states and the matter would probably end up being decided in court.

Local state lawmakers said they don’t like the federal government throwing its weight around when it comes to state regulations.

Republican Rep. Harry Warren, who said he worked to limit the harm the state’s law did to Fibrant, said his first thought was whether the FCC has the authority to overturn the law. He wondered if it would be federal overreach.

“That’s my biggest concern about it,” he said.

“You couldn’t ask for more,” he said about what Salisbury got out of the bill, adding he fought the sponsors of the bill to secure rights for Fibrant.

He said the public broadband issue was the first thing he had to take on in office after being elected in 2010.

State Sen. Andrew Brock, also a Republican, said in an email that the FCC chairman’s comments show how out of touch the Obama Administration is with “technology and the pocketbooks of American families.”

“I find it interesting that a bureaucrat that is not beholden to the people can make such a claim without going through Congress,” he said.

Wheeler was appointed by Obama and assumed office in 2013.

Both Brock and Warren voted for the state’s law.

The fight over publicly owned broadband networks is part of a larger battle the Obama Administration, along with the FCC, is currently waging over “Net neutrality” — the concept that all data on the Internet should be treated equally — and the future of an open Internet.

Contact Reporter David Purtell at 704-797-4264.