As I write this The News & Observer’s internet connection has gone dead. I can't check my email or Google for anything. Even my desk phone sounds like someone cut the cord.
The internet access glitch was fixed. But for thousands of North Carolinians, a lack of internet access is an everyday reality. Many thousands more have weak or spotty access. They can send an email and view a website, but there’s not enough signal strength to watch a video or conduct a business.
Weak internet access or none at all is common in North Carolina. Much of the state is rural and cable companies can’t profit from serving a small population living in homes spread widely apart. And some of the deficit reflects the difficulty of transmitting in the state’s mountainous west.
Whatever the causes, the situation cannot persist. High-speed internet access is a basic necessity today. The state should make sure it is as available as any other part of modern infrastructure. Instead, the state is standing by a state law that hinders local governments from solving the problem.
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The 2011 state law limits the ability of local municipal governments to set up their own high-speed internet service. The law spared cable companies from having to compete with municipal systems that could deliver the same high-speed internet access at a lower price. But the free enterprise arguments of the law's supporters don't hold up.
For one, internet access isn't a consumer product. It's as basic as access to a phone, electricity or indoor plumbing. Secondly, there isn't any real competition involved. Rural areas often are limited to one provider offering slow access. The law not only discourages new municipal broadband systems, but it forbids ones that opened prior to 2011 — such as the Greenlight system offered by the City of Wilson — from extending its service to neighboring towns. This law isn't protecting competition. It's protecting cable monopolies.
Colin Campbell of The Insider recently reported on growing pressure to bring North Carolina literally up to speed. The N.C. League of Municipalities backs the idea of passing legislation that would allow local communities to join with private companies to build and operate broadband systems. Gov. Roy Cooper announced this month that his proposed budget will address the issue with $20 million to connect households and businesses to the internet.
Meanwhile, smaller companies are using transmitters placed atop grain elevators and water towers to give rural residents within a five-mile radius access to high-speed internet.
These efforts are encouraging, but bolder steps are needed. The first one should be repeal of the law that has effectively halted the development of new municipal broadband systems. That bill was a pet project of then-House Speaker and now U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on behalf of his friends in the cable industry. Now it's widening the state's economic rural-urban divide.
The Federal Communications Committee saw the law for what it is and ruled that Wilson could not be blocked from extending its service to nearby Pinetops. But in 2016 a federal appeals court found that the FCC had overstepped its authority by ruling on a state law.
Tillis issued a statement applauding ruling as a victory for states rights and their ability "to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market.”
Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler saw it differently. He said, “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price." Amen to that.