North Carolina Becomes Epicenter of Community-Owned Broadband Network Debate

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  May 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of NGN.

Well over a hundred city-owned fiber networks exist in the U.S., bringing broadband to local residents and businesses that might not have otherwise been able to get connectivity – or connectivity at these data rates, anyway. But while these communities seem to be digging these broadband efforts, some incumbent cableco and telco operators are not. And there is a renewed effort to put a stop to these grassroots initiatives. A case in point is what’s happening in North Carolina.

A handful of communities already offer their own broadband to North Carolina residents, according to reports, and apparently Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable, for one, doesn’t want this kind of thing to go any further.

The cableco and its incumbent service provider allies in early April were successful in their push to get North Carolina’s House of Representatives to pass legislation (in a 81-37 vote) that will make it much more difficult for municipalities to deliver broadband. Specifically, the legislation aims to block municipal entities’ ability to borrow money to fund broadband efforts without voter approval and to block them from providing such services below cost or using city funds.

According to a piece on Think Progress, Time Warner and other incumbents, which donated more than $600,000 to North Carolina politicians in the last election cycle, got the votes of all Republicans and 15 Democrats in the state House for the “Level Playing Field/Local Gov’t Competition” bill, which now moves to the state Senate.

The piece went on to quote Rep. Bill Faison (D) as saying: “This bill will make it practically impossible for cities to provide a fundamental service. Where’s the bill to govern Time Warner? Let’s be clear about whose bill this is. This is Time Warner’s bill. You need to know who you’re doing this for.”

A DSL Reports piece on March 29 discusses how North Carolina incumbents AT&T (News - Alert), CenturyLink and Time Warner Cable have for four consecutive years “been trying to pass laws that either outright ban, or constrain the ability of individual communities to deploy fiber to local residents and businesses.” The article says such efforts gained popularity a few years ago, when a dozen states passed such laws. But it goes on to comment that bills like this became less popular as opponents revealed them for what they are – an effort to protect incumbents that are unwilling to deliver broadband at the levels that communities seek.The DSL Reports article explains: “Spearheaded by the towns of Salisbury and Wilson, these fiber efforts in North Carolina have been a very pronounced, community-driven response to limited competition and market failure. As a result, those cities now offer locals fiber to the home connections that vastly outperform anything provided by incumbents like Time Warner Cable. Local TV/Internet and voice bundles are now offered not only at speeds that outperform local incumbents, but at a reasonable price point as well.”According to a new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, hundreds of U.S. communities have made substantial investments in communications networks established for use by their citizens and businesses.

“Today over 54 cities, big and small, own citywide fiber networks while another 79 own citywide cable networks,” according to a statement issued by ILSR. “Over 3 million people have access to telecommunications networks whose objective is to maximize value to the community in which they are located rather than to distant stockholders and corporate executives.”

To get a sense of where these networks exist in the U.S. today, click on this link for the map, which includes information on community-owned FTTH and cable networks that are citywide or close to it. ILSR expects to add broadband stimulus and non-profit networks to the map in the future.

“The Community Broadband Map reveals the depth and breadth of publicly owned networks,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “Many of these were the first to bring broadband to their residents. Others offer some of the best deals available in the country.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi