by Travis Fain
House legislators pushed forward today on a bill that would make it harder for cities to provide Internet service to residents.
House Bill 129 passed the chamber's Public Utilities Committee on a voice vote, despite bill sponsors saying they planned to overhaul key sections of the bill as soon as this afternoon. Committee members were basically told to trust fellow legislators as negotiations continue on the controversial measure, which moves now to the House Finance Committee.
"My word is my bond," said co-sponsoring state Rep. Julia Howard, who promised to work with cities that have already gotten into the broadband game to make sure the bill's restraints don't collapse their systems.
There was some grumbling over the tactic, but it's not terribly uncommon at the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill still has several hurdles to clear before it makes it to the House floor, and then the floor of the Senate.
But the push indicates the bill's high-priority as private companies try to stymy potential taxpayer-funded competition.
The cities of Wilson, Salisbury and Morganton already have broadband services, and the debt it took to build them. Their existing operations are exempt from many aspects of the bill,** though whether or not they can expand those services — or upgrade them as needed — remains to be seen as the bill is rewritten.
But the key fight elsewhere pits private enterprise against rural and suburban cities where high-speed Internet service is rare. Homes in these areas are often far from each other, making it expensive to run cables.
Because of that, private providers are less likely to provide top-level Internet service, and some cities would like to use tax dollars and other local revenues to fund public systems.
On its face, House Bill 129 would still allow that. But it would only be allowed in an "unserved area," which is defined as a place where at least 90 percent of homes either have no high-speed Internet or can only get high-speed service from an expensive satellite link.
That's likely to limit many local governments to very small areas with no service, according to Cyhthia Pols, a Washington D.C. based attorney working with cities interested in municipal broadband. Between those pockets without service are areas that do have service, and sometimes areas where people are dissatisfied with their Internet service, Pols said.
If cities can't expand their operations to include those areas, they can't afford to build in the unserved areas without, Pols said. And since the bill is meant to level the playing field between private companies and public governments, it wouldn't allow cities to use tax dollars or other public revenues to subsidize Internet service unless they build only in the unserved area.
That's likely to leave pockets where people are just out of luck if they want broadband, advocates argued Wednesday. Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, said she knows of several communities where parents have to drive their kids several miles to reach a broadband connection and do their homework.
"If these companies choose not to provide these communities broadband, why stop these communities from providing it themslves any way they can?" Rice asked committee members Tuesday.
But cable company representatives argue that, without some protections, cities will have an unfair advantage. And the North Carolina League of Municipalities said Tuesday that it wants to work with both sides to develop public-private partnerships to serve areas that need help. The bill could be recrafted to favor those partnerships and "only if that won't work let cities go it alone," the league's chief legislative counsel, Paul Meyer, suggested.
State Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake and a co-sponsor of the bill, said negotiators on the city side of the issue have dragged their feet, which is one of the reasons the bill lurched forward Tuesday despite a recognized need for changes.
"Once you start moving it, everybody realizes you're serious," she said.
Avila also said rural residents who want Internet service need to be patient. The state has its own fiber project working to serve some areas, and wireless service is improving, she said.
"Will we get to them?" Avila said. "Yeah. ... Just be patient."
** Correction: The cities are exempt from some of the more restrictive provisions of the bill, but not the entire bill, as was initially stated.
See some previous Indy stories about municipal broadband: