by Travis Fain
House Bill 129 is enormously complicated, and is ostensibly about putting limits on the ways cities can build broadband Internet systems, and thus compete with private companies such as Time Warner Cable.
As noted earlier this week, the bill forbids cities from using tax dollars to build the system under most plausible scenarios, and would make them cough up "payments in lieu of taxes" on the system, much like a private company would pay regular taxes.
The bill also intends to make cities hold a referendum before borrowing money to build their system. But there are a number of other provisions I not covered this week that, city folks say, were designed to make it overly difficult for cities to get into the business, or for cities with existing systems to continue operating.
The SouthEast Chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers did a bill analysis to break down the sections it considers to be the most limiting. It's 16 pages, more than five times longer than the bill itself.
But by excerpting the analysis you get a picture of the hoops private companies want cities to jump through to offer broadband services. Said Jay Ovittore, SEATOA's legislative representative on this matter: "I guarantee if this bill passes you will see massive rate increases from Time Warner Cable."
Some examples of what SEATOA doesn't like (in italics) followed by some analysis from me:
From the bill itself: A municipal provider may “provide communications service only within the jurisdictional boundaries of the city providing the service." While that may make sense when a city acts like a city, the stated intent of this bill is to level the playing field between cities and private companies. Clearly this clause would give private companies an important advantage over cities.
From SETOA's analysis: "The bills run roughshod over the well-established federal restrictions on state authority and, for the first time ever, charge the NC Utilities Commission (NCUC) with regulating rates charged by municipal utilities and fees collected by cities for any communications service." For me, the question here is: Who do you figure those regulators will be friendly to?
From SETOA's analysis: "The city is required to publish notices in a newspaper of general circulation for four consecutive weeks prior to each hearing (a total of eight newspaper notices). In no other situation are cities subject to such excessive, onerous, and unreasonable notice obligation, giving rise to the implication that nothing is more important to the state." That is a stringent notice requirement. One could argue this speaks to the bill's intent.
Ovittore also said the bill will make it harder for a range of municipal projects to get funding from banks, due to the uncertainty it creates. A few cities, including Wilson, already have their own broadband service. Ovittore argues that, if the state shows a willingness to rewrite the rules for those systems to help private businesses now, who's to say the state won't eventually do that in other areas, such as garbage service?
Now, this bill is going to be renegotiated before it goes further, sponsors have said. And cities clearly have significant advantages over private companies now when it comes to providing Internet service, or other utilities for that matter. (Note: Digdeeper makes some good points about advantages large companies have over small cities in the comments.)
Bill proponents have also put together a summary of various public broadband projects, and it's not pretty. It shows millions lost on municipal Internet projects around the country, leaving local taxpayers on the hook. I haven't had time to confirm the summary's figures, but it appears to be well sourced.
At the bottom line are questions of philosophy. Given that it doesn't make financial sense for companies to provide high-speed Internet service to everyone, and particularly to rural customers, should cities be allowed to do so? And given a city's inherent advantage over private companies, how many rules can you put on them to level the playing field before it is onerous to the point of discouragement, leaving a few large cable companies to charge whatever they can get?