RALEIGH — Alarmed by the prospect of competing for customers against local governments, the cable TV industry is pushing for a state law to prevent North Carolina cities from offering Internet and cable systems to their residents.
The industry, led by Time Warner Cable, wants to protect itself from what it calls unfair competition. The industry's concerns are gaining urgency as some two dozen towns in the state are either planning or exploring their own telecommunications and television service for residents and businesses.
A proposed moratorium on municipal broadband has sailed through the state Senate and is now awaiting debate in the House of Representatives. But some lawmakers in the House are intent on derailing any proposal that would delay the development of local broadband networks. They say the future of the state depends on unfettered broadband access.
The bill is pending in the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Bill Faison, sees the moratorium as an attempt to protect the powerful cable monopoly. Faison, a Democrat who represents Orange and Caswell counties, is meeting Wednesday with representatives of the telecommunications industry and local government leaders to discuss options.
"I decide what gets put on the agenda," Faison said. "It's unlikely that any bill with a moratorium in it has a chance of getting through the House."
Virtually unheard of just a few years ago, a high-speed Internet and cable TV service offered by your local government is becoming a reality for some.
The City of Wilson's $28 million Greenlight service is the prototype of municipal broadband in this state, launched just two years ago and now claiming about 4,800 customers. The City of Salisbury will be next with its $30 million Fibrant service, scheduled to be offered later this year. Meanwhile, Fayetteville is set to study its own version of municipal broadband this summer and could decide this year whether to proceed.
Additionally, the towns of Davidson and Mooresville recently bought telecom assets from Adelphia Communications during bankruptcy proceedings, and now both provide municipal broadband. Their jointly owned system has been hobbled by revenue shortfalls as the towns seek to convince more citizens to subscribe.
City officials say municipal telecom service is an economic development strategy that will increase competition and provide high-speed Internet access to those who lack any kind of broadband. They point out that local governments traditionally provide public services - water, sewer, electric, natural gas, transportation - where the options are nonexistent or inadequate.
"We're running this as a public utility," said Doug Paris, assistant to the city manager in Salisbury. "It's really not a luxury anymore - it's a necessity."
Opponents warn that towns run a major risk of defaulting when competing against Wall Street-backed industries. In addition to contending against Time Warner Cable, the state's dominant cable provider with 1.7 million customers, government broadband networks would also have to compete against satellite services, AT&T's U-verse where it's offered, and the expected spread of Internet-streaming services.
Sen. David Hoyle, a Democrat from Gaston County, says he heard similar arguments from government officials decades ago when city halls were eager to get in on the business of selling electricity. Several dozen North Carolina towns, including Wilson, joined to buy a share in utility-owned power plants, and now their residents pay some of the highest power bills in the state.
A similar proposal last year was also deferred for study by the General Assembly's Joint Revenue Laws Committee, which led to the bill proposed by Hoyle this year.
Hoyle originally proposed restricting municipal broadband by requiring a public vote on a general obligation bond issue before a town could invest in a broadband network. Hoyle said such a vote would essentially prevent the systems from being built once citizens see the costs involved.
But the Senate preferred a year-long moratorium so the matter could be further studied by a panel to be named by the Joint Revenue Laws Committee. If municipal broadband expands, Hoyle worries that it's just a matter of time until local towns are asking the state for bailouts.
"They're going to have debt up the ying-yang," Hoyle said. "It's people getting into business they don't know anything in the world about."
Faison's concern is promoting universal broadband access. It's estimated about 10 percent of the state's population, mostly in rural and remote areas, lacks access to high-speed Internet. Still, the networks being developed by local governments largely overlap with existing networks.
About half the nation's states restrict municipal broadband. The N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association says local governments have an unfair advantage over Time Warner or other providers because they don't pay taxes and consequently have significantly lower operating costs.
Other conflicts can arise as well. For example, in 2007, when Wilson was developing its Greenlight service, the town tripled its rate for using municipal utility poles from $5 to $15 a year. That raised the pole fee for Time Warner Cable from $82,000 to $246,000 a year, but Time Warner is still paying the old rate while it negotiates with town officials over the issue.
"When the regulator becomes your competitor, it's not a good situation," said Marcus Trathen, a lawyer for the cable lobby.
The moratorium provision before Faison's committee is the result of a compromise between the N.C. League of Municipalities, the city government's lobby, and the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association, the industry's lobbying arm. The moratorium doesn't apply to towns that are already planning or developing municipal broadband, towns that received federal stimulus grants for broadband deployment, or towns chosen by Google for its Fiber Project.
Restrictions on municipal broadband also are opposed by Google, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent and several other telecom companies that wrote a letter to lawmakers in May.
"North Carolina should be lowering barriers to public broadband initiatives rather than establishing new ones," their letter says, arguing that the state would be cutting off potential federal stimulus grants.
Both sides accuse the other of putting profits before the public interest.
"It's like, say, Barnes & Noble saying we shouldn't have a public library system because it stops private sector investment," said Kelli Kukura, the League's director of governmental affairs. "The bottom line is they need to get busy working on this or get out of the way so we can serve our citizens."
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