The Federal Communications Commission has done the right thing in ruling that city-owned broadband services helping people connect to the Internet should not be restricted. That’s a good development for North Carolinians in rural areas and others who now can have access to low-cost, high-speed Internet access. And it could be good news for cities and consumers around the country.
Opponents of lifting the restrictions offer two common arguments, both of them weak: that allowing cities to own and expand broadband networks is unfair competition for private providers and that the taxpayers could be put at risk if city-owned networks somehow became a financial boondoggle.
In point of fact, the strongest opposition to municipalities being able to provide such service comes from cable and telephone companies that want to protect their own bottom lines.
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Consider that telecommunications companies and their trade associations (read that: lobbyists) steered something like $1.6 million in contributions to North Carolina lawmakers between 2006 and 2011.
And when Republicans took over the General Assembly, they got the restrictions they wanted courtesy in part from the help of two recipients of their money, state Rep. Marilyn Avila of Wake County and House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a United States senator. Avila got $13,000 from Time Warner’s political action committee over a four-year period and $2,000 from AT&T. Tillis got $37,000 from eight political action committees (including Time Warner’s) and trade associations in 2010-11.
Now Tillis is going to lead the charge to overturn the consumer-friendly actions of the FCC. The city of Wilson was one of those that petitioned the FCC to take the action it ultimately did.
The senator claims the FCC is “attempting to deny the sovereign right of states to make their own laws.” Tillis continued to make the claim that North Carolina’s protections for commercial providers including Time Warner and AT&T were all about looking out for taxpayers and as he put it were intended to “maintain the fairness of free-market competition.”
Free market access
Ah, yes, there’s the Republican mantra: The free market will cure all. Only it doesn’t. Although it does have a way of causing the campaign donations to roll in from companies seeking to boost the ol’ profit margin. Allowing cities to compete is, if anything, the free market in action.
Tillis tried to show that Wilson’s broadband project was a loser, and indeed helping people get lower-cost service did cost the city money for five years. But in 2013 it made a profit. Access to broadband service isn’t any longer some kind of luxury for the few. It’s a necessity.
There’s another hole in Tillis’ argument, of course, and that is that the FCC is charged with regulating communications, and broadband access without question falls under that charge.
The senator’s notion that states have the “sovereign right to make their own laws” is a curious one, indeed. Will the junior senator from North Carolina now be the advocate for states being able to decide which federal regulations they’ll obey and which they’ll simply legislate their way out of?
Sadly, the fuss over broadband access and also the FCC’s approval of rules to allow federal regulation of Internet providers have a familiar theme: Republicans protecting their campaign contributors in big business while critcizing attempts to protect consumers.
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