David Post: Against municipal broadband? That’s just wrong

Published 12:14 am Sunday, June 12, 2016

By David Post

Special to the Salisbury Post

Wrong. Just plain wrong.

An opinion piece in last Sunday’s Salisbury Post, “A bipartisan way forward on broadband,” authored by Danny McComas and David Young, a North Carolina Republican and Democrat, is just plain wrong.

Citing Salisbury’s problems with Fibrant, they argue that municipalities should not have their own broadband systems and that the Federal Communication Commission was wrong when it ruled that North Carolina’s “level playing field” violated federal law.

They are wrong. Not because Fibrant is losing money. But because municipal broadband is the right thing for small cities or towns where the big boys won’t build it.

Here’s the big picture.

About a decade ago, Salisbury, Wilson and Chattanooga decided to build their own broadband networks to enhance their city’s ability to compete in a global market. Wilson and Chattanooga have fared fairly well. Salisbury has suffered (that’s another story).

Recognizing the importance of broadband for all Americans, Congress passed the “open internet” law in 2010 that requires the FCC and states to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced communications capability to all Americans.” The United States ranks below the top 10 counties on internet speeds by any measure. Behind, for example, Romania, Finland and Czech Republic. We gotta catch up.

In response to the open internet law, Time Warner cried pity-us-the-private-sector to the North Carolina legislature. Protect us, it said, from Fibrant which now has 25 employees, $30 million in assets, and $5 million in sales. After all, Time Warner has 55,000 employees, $48 billion in assets, $22 billion in revenues, and over 15 million customers. Its CEO earns almost $15 million per year, three times as much as Fibrant’s annual revenues. It probably spent more lobbying the legislature to protect it from Salisbury than Fibrant’s total revenues.

Pity poor little Time Warner. It sobbed — and Mr. McComas and Mr. Young — that municipalities would have an unfair competitive advantage over private sector companies. So, Time Warner successfully lobbied for — and wrote — North Carolina’s so-called “level-playing-field” laws that severely limit the ability for a municipal broadband system to grow.

Level playing field? Hah! Imagine one of our champion American Legion baseball teams playing the New York Yankees in Newman Field and the Yankees crying foul because the Rowan County Legion has an unfair home field advantage.

Chattanooga sued Tennessee and Wilson sued North Carolina asking the courts to declare that the level playing field laws violated the federal “open internet” law. (For reasons I don’t understand, Salisbury didn’t participate.)

In early 2015, the FCC agreed with Chattanooga and Wilson (and Salisbury), but Tennessee and North Carolina appealed the decision. Mr. McComas and Mr. Young argue that the FCC decision was wrong. (Again wrong.) A three-judge panel on U.S. Court of Appeals heard the case three months ago and will likely render its decision this summer. (The lawyers representing Wilson told me that it will be a split decision.) Fibrant’s future is in the court’s hands.

A few years ago, Google installed one-gig broadband in Kansas City and has begun the process of installing it into a couple dozen of the largest cities in the country. Cedar Rapids, Iowa — about the size of Salisbury — installed its own one-gig network. New York, LA, and Washington, DC are only half-gig cities.

Fibrant can run with, and beat, them all.

What does the level playing field law do? It prohibits small cities from growing outside their city limits. Google, Time Warner, and AT&T are investing in the largest cities because that is where the opportunity is. Like Willie Sutton who famously said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money was, they are not investing in the Salisburys of the nation other than to lobby against their growth.

Today, 200 small cities, most smaller than Salisbury, are installing their own broadband infrastructure. Mr. McComas and Mr. Young argue that broadband is not infrastructure like highways and bridges (which they admit are crumbling) because technology changes so quickly and is so costly. That, too, is just plain wrong. Today, half of all U.S. employees hold jobs that are compatible with teleworking— working from home with a good internet connection. Studies show that competitive internet access attracts new business investment and increases housing prices are higher.

Without competitive internet, small cities will find it more difficult to attract the best and brightest people. Their best high school graduates will not just leave for college; they will just leave.

Mr. McComas and Mr. Young believe in protecting large companies and large cities over growing companies and smaller cities. The reality is that the level playing field law is precisely the opposite. It allows the big to get bigger and stronger and makes small smaller and weaker. That does not create a level playing field.

David Post is a member of Salisbury City Council.