Dogged grassroots activism last week shelved a bill before the legislature that would have prohibited local governments from providing broadband Internet and other telecommunications services to their citizens.
Using blogs, Twitter and other social media tools, a network of interested geeks beat back the anti-muni broadband bill into study committees in both the state House and Senate this week. Doing so required fighting off heavy lobbying, robocalls and push-polling by the cable TV industry and conservative anti-tax groups.
Many eyes were on North Carolina, which is one of about a dozen states where such bills have been introduced in the past five years. Craig Settles, a telecommunications analyst in Oakland, Calif., says the heavy opposition dealt a surprise blow to the cable and telephone industries that backed the bill.
"If the telecom companies had succeeded in North Carolina, they would have introduced this kind of legislation in other states. And they still might, but this takes away some of the momentum," Settles says.
N.C. House Bill 1252 and Senate Bill 1004 would have placed a number of financial restrictions on local governments that seek to offer Internet and other telecom services, in the name of "leveling the playing field" between governments, which can borrow money more cheaply than private companies can, and private cable and telephone companies that offer similar services. The bill would have required municipal services to tack on to customer fees equal to the difference in the amount it would cost a private company to provide the service, and prohibited governments from "cross-subsidizing" the launch or operation of a system, a practice common in private industry.
Critics say municipal services already face rigorous financial scrutiny and that towns and cities go into the broadband business only when private industry chooses not to upgrade or build out infrastructure to increase the availability and quality of service. The bill could have effectively made North Carolina's local governments ineligible for federal stimulus money designated to stimulate the construction of broadband networks.
"We've seen these in other states where they don't ban them outright but they create such a barrier to being able to comply with the rules, that's the practical effect," Settles says.
At the center of the controversy is Greenlight, a service launched last year by the City of Wilson. Greenlight offers Internet, telephone and TV over a fiber-optic network the city extended to every address in town, using bond money. Greenlight's prices are lower than those of Time Warner Cable, and its Internet connection speeds are significantly higher. (See "Mighty, mighty broadband," June 18, 2008.)
Wilson leaders fought a similar bill in 2007 by speaking out to legislators and reporters. This time, the city's public affairs manager Brian Bowman launched a blog, Save NC Broadband, where he posted updates on the bill's progress and contact information for lawmakers.
Phillip M. Dampier of Rochester, N.Y., took up the cause on StopTheCap.com, his blog opposing cable and phone company proposals to limit or meter the bandwidth their customers use. Dampier teamed with Jay Ovittore of Greensboro, who spent a week posting blog updates and networking on Facebook.
The national advocacy group Free Press sent e-mail alerts to approximately 10,000 North Carolinians, urging them to oppose the bill. Tim Karr, campaign director, estimates his group generated about 200 phone calls, but says the real organizing came from local bloggers.
"When we look at what happened in North Carolina, we see a promising model for grass- and netroots opposition that could be emulated by other states," namely Pennsylvania, Karr says, where a similar bill is under consideration.
When the bill went before the House Public Utilities Committee May 6, more than 100 citizens, lobbyists, elected officials and members of the press attended. Supporters of the bill, rallied by the Americans for Prosperity, sponsors of the tax day "tea parties," wore red shirts to show their support. Opponents wore yellow stickers that said "Save NC Broadband."
Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Wake, and Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenberg, addressed the mounting controversy by moving to send the bill to committee for further study.
Study committees are often where bills go to die. Harrell says he does not intend to let the measure die wants it to have "a thorough chewing-on."
"Let me just say, this is a highly complex issue, and it's not as simple as many would like to think," Harrell told the committee. "Both sides of the coin are in agreement that this thing needs to be studied, it needs to be discussed."
The House bill will go to a committee on broadband connectivity issues headed by Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange/ Caswell, which can meet even when the legislature is not in session. "That committee already has the knowledge base, knows the scope of the problem and has been making great progress," Faison says. State senators are invited to join that study committee.
Both sides celebrated the outcome.
"We're pleased that the bill's moving forward, that it's going to be studied," says Brad Phillips, who represents Time Warner Cable and the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association. "It's obviously a very polarizing issue, and we think the more it can be discussed, and the more closely it can be examined, the better the results will be."
Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, who came with Council Member Ed Harrison to express opposition to the bill, says he was also pleased with the outcome. "If you look at the bill and you really study it, you would come to the conclusion that it's anti-competitive and is not good for the economic health of the state," Foy says.
Chapel Hill is currently installing fiber-optic cable while upgrading its signal system. "We're creating the backbone for something we might use in the future. And I think that's really the key: Why would you cut off the ability of a municipality or anyone else who wanted to provide this infrastructure to people?"
Word came at the end of the day last Wednesday that the bill would be heard before the Senate Commerce committee at 8 a.m. the following morning. Opponents feared Senate sponsors were planning a surprise.
Jay Cuthrell, a local wireless communications consultant, was one of the self-described geeks who used blog posts and Twitter messages to rally opponents to come to the meeting.
His work with municipalities has convinced him that local governments need to have the option to build their own networks.
In the end, the Senate sponsors also moved to send the bill for further study. Cuthrell expects the bill to resurface next year. Next time, he says, "I think we'll be more organized in advance."