In recent years, North Carolina has become a legislative broadband battleground in the war to regain local telecommunications authority. This legislative session, support from Governor Roy Cooper, outspoken State Legislators, and North Carolina media may make an impact on state law.
Let's Fix This
In 2015, the FCC preempted restrictive state laws which set dire limitations on municipal network expansions, but the state chose to back telecom monopolies over citizens’ need for better connectivity. The state took the FCC to court and won, which meant North Carolina’s laws won’t allow places such as Wilson to help neighbor Pinetops with high-quality Internet access. In addition to preventing local community networks from expanding, requirements and regulations are so onerous, that the state law is a de facto ban on new networks.
Lawmakers such as Republican Rep. David Lewis has put broadband development among the top of their priorities list. In a letter to constituents, Lewis wrote:
High-speed Internet access has transitioned from a luxury to a necessity of our 21st-century economy...It is needed for economic growth in North Carolina, yet many rural communities throughout the state do not have access to broadband services because of their under-developed infrastructure.
In order to get fiber out to people across the state, governments — federal, state, county and local — should be able to invest in fiber infrastructure, and in turn, lease them to the service providers who sell access to the consumer. We have to do something so that the people of this state can be connected to our ever-evolving world.
Cooper, a Democrat, presented broadband deployment in rural areas at the top of his agenda during the State of the State Address. According to a WRAL.com report, both Republican and Democrats strongly supported the proposal with intense applause. The positive bipartisan reaction to his comments reveals that policy makers from both sides of the aisle recognize the critical nature of high-quality Internet access for their constituents.
Last year, the state developed the Growing Rural Economies and Access to Technology (GREAT) Program, which made $10 million available for rural broadband project grants. The program had been an alternative to the BRIGHT Futures Act, proposed by the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM). Due to state restrictions on municipalities that effective prevent investment in new networks, however, grants from the GREAT Program are out of reach. This year, the NCLM hopes that those restrictions can be removed so local governments can invest in publicly owned infrastructure in order to work with private sector ISPs.
Locals Lend their Voice
Governor Cooper isn’t the only North Carolinian who wants to take the necessary steps to improve connectivity options around the state. Editors at the Fayetteville Observer published a piece that describes their view on how to “grow the rural economy” is through publicly owned broadband. The Wilson Times picked up the piece and republished the editorial. Wilson, home to the Greenlight Community Network, has reaped the benefits of their publicly owned network since 2008.
In the opinion piece, editors point out that the urban-rural digital divide in North Carolina is worse than ever, and that, even though lawmakers publicly recognize that high-quality Internet access is an essential utility, they aren’t willing to put funding in the hands of the people who can provide it — local communities.
Like many other editorials on the subject of rural broadband, Fayette Observer Editors draw the parallel to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and opine that it’s time to apply that approach to broadband. Editors acknowledge Rep. Lewis’s constituent letter and task him and his colleagues with taking the next step by changing state law so North Carolina communities can invest in publicly owned infrastructure:
Thank you, Rep. Lewis. We’ve waited a long, long time for our lawmakers — especially those in our legislative majority — to recognize the problem. Our state’s rural areas will continue to face depressing economic prospects until government gets involved with expanding our fiber-optic infrastructure and making fast internet service available to whoever wants and needs it. In these days of “smart” homes and workplaces, that’s just about all of us. And in this era of “cloud” storage, every business, large or small, needs to have those high-speed connections.
We hope Lewis’ colleagues in the House and Senate agree.
Listen to Christopher talk with Will Aycock from Greenlight about some of Wilson's programs to bring high-quality connectivity to all residents to help bridge the digital divide: