A bipartisan solution on broadband
By Danny McComas and David Young
North Carolina’s attorney general is currently battling it out with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in federal court over a Tarheel State law that ensures a level playing field between private broadband networks and government-owned ones.
At issue is a ruling from last February in which the FCC voted narrowly — and along party lines — to overturn our broadband law. The three commissioners that favored the order argued it would help expand broadband access. We disagree and, as former elected officials (one Republican and one Democrat), we believe there’s a better — more bipartisan — solution when it comes to broadband.
First, because government-owned broadband networks have the implicit backing of the taxpayer, and because they are exempt from some of the fees and regulations private sector Internet service providers (ISPs) have to pay and abide by, we believe government networks actually crowd out private investment. Private ISPs simply can’t compete when the playing field is so badly tilted against them. Right now, according to CNBC’s annual rankings of the best states to do business, North Carolina is in the top 10. We’re among the top states for technology and innovation and we provide excellent access to capital — all factors that make the Tarheel State a great place to invest. However, if we allow the FCC to overturn our state municipal broadband law, our excellent business ranking is at risk because it will signal to private job creators that our government is more focused on competing against them than it is on creating a hospitable environment for investment and innovation.
Unlike the FCC chairman and other government broadband supporters, we do not believe broadband should be treated like a utility or like more traditional types of infrastructure. Building broadband networks is not akin to building roads and bridges or operating wastewater systems. While roads and bridges may need to be resurfaced or reinforced regularly, they don’t go out of date quickly. Broadband infrastructure does — and government agencies, even utilities, simply don’t have the expertise, or funding, to keep up with the improvements needed to keep a broadband system on the cutting edge.
Finally, state and local lawmakers have other pressing priorities they must focus on, and building broadband networks will hamper their ability to do so. Our state ranks near the bottom in per capita public health spending and average teacher salaries. Our existing traditional infrastructure also ranks poorly, receiving mediocre grades at best and near failing at worst. Further, it’s also not great to be a taxpayer in our state. With cost of living factored in, we’re in the top 20 in terms of overall tax burden. Private sector companies can serve our broadband needs — they can’t pay our teachers or lower our tax burden — so we should leave Internet service to them, but too many cities aren’t. In Salisbury, $1 of every $12 in tax revenue goes to support the city-owned broadband system. That’s $3 million in revenue that won’t reach the city’s public school students, police or fire departments.
There is little doubt that access to broadband is a necessary tool in today’s economy. Our small businesses need to be able to engage in e-commerce to compete with larger companies in other states and countries; our students need to have adequate access to the state-of-the-art learning tools they can find online; and our public safety and emergency response teams need to be able to communicate quickly and clearly in the field. To improve broadband access, however, we must partner with the private sector, not compete against it. Our state lawmakers should identify ways to break down barriers to private investment and they should make it clear that North Carolina will preserve the level playing field we currently provide for private Internet service providers.
We must continue to fight the FCC, look for new and innovative ways to open our state to additional private sector broadband investment and preserve our precious tax dollars for the vital programs like education, public health and infrastructure that need it the most. That’s the smart solution — and it’s the bipartisan one.
Danny McComas is a former Republican state representative from Wilmington. David Young is a former Buncombe County commissioner, a former president of the NC Association of Counties, and former state chair of the NC Democratic Party.