RALEIGH — While farm life has never been easy, at one time it was significantly harder. In the mid-1930s, over 97 percent of North Carolina farms had no electricity, many because private electric companies couldn't make enough money from them to justify running the lines.
Aware of the transformational effect of electrification and recognizing the need to do something, visionary North Carolina leaders created rural electric cooperatives, beating passage of FDR's Rural Electrification Act by one month. Through the state's granting local communities the power to provide for their own needs where others would not, over 98 percent of farms had electricity by 1963, and our state has prospered.
The Internet is no less transformational than electricity. Through this world-changing technology, lives are being shared, distance learning taking place and innovative new businesses springing up. Sadly just as in the days before electrification, many North Carolina communities (particularly rural ones) are being left behind, stuck in the Internet slow lane.
Citing the economics, private Internet providers have been slow to invest in the high-speed infrastructure that would connect these rural communities. That has a lot to do with why North Carolina ranks a paltry 41st in the nation for broadband access, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Having been snubbed by the private providers, some communities like Wilson and Salisbury have taken the same approach as they did 66 years ago: opting to build their own state-of-the-art systems when the commercial providers refused. Now the General Assembly, through a bill sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Raleigh, aims to throw substantial roadblocks in the way of communities seeking to serve themselves.
House Bill 129, the so-called the Level Playing Field bill, piles a regulatory burden on municipally owned networks that the private providers are not subject to. Financing on municipal systems would be subject to unreasonable (and some say unconstitutional) restrictions, advertising would be strictly limited and limitations put on service areas, along with other drastic measures. In short, any municipal Internet enterprise would collapse under the weight of this government red tape, leaving our rural communities once again in the dark.
It's important to note that the Internet would not exist without the investment from the federal government. Likewise, the private providers' networks would not exist without the public rights-of-way. Anyone who claims the government shouldn't be in the Internet business ignores the fact that there would be no Internet without the government.
Like the electric lines that were once strung by hand to all corners of our state, our cities should retain the right to bring Internet service to their communities - especially where the private providers will not.
Mark Turner is a technology advocate who lives in East Raleigh. A hearing on HB 129 is slated for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday before the House Finance Committee in Room 544, Legislative Office Building.