North Carolina Republicans Attempt to Ban Municipalities From Entering Into The Internet Provision Business
Yesterday, a story by Jason Mick at The Daily Tech caught my attention: UPDATED: NC Republicans Fight to Ban Municipal Internet Services
House Bill 129, sponsored by Marilyn Avila and other Republican State Senators, would prevent municipalities from using public funds to provide internet access. Time-Warner, which has a monopoly on high speed internet in the state of North Carolina, is lobbying heavily in support of the bill.
The initial argument, that government is not competent to deliver telecom services, was undone by the fact that there are now successful third party providers of internet services in Wilson, (Greenlight, Inc.), Salisbury (Fibrant), Davidson (MI-Connection), and Morganton (CoMPAS Cable TV & Internet), that are deploying faster cheaper access for their citizens.
Predictably enough for anyone following the longstanding effort on the part of cable companies and telecoms to suppress local competition and undermine municipal broadband efforts, the new (old) argument is that the public sector should not be in competition with the private sector. Time-Warner states that the bill seeks to “create a level playing field,” thus helping, of course to preserve their monopoly status.
The bill would require any municipality to partner with a private firm on any internet services project, with certain terms placed on the type of firm they’d have to use, and it would ban municipalities from seeking private loans to finance their projects. Reading between the lines, such projects would practically require a municipality to hire Time-Warner to build and run their networks, and would have to depend on them to fund the network. Since Time-Warner is not about to go into competition with itself, the monopoly is thus preserved.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte) stated
I don’t believe providing (Internet) service is a core function of government. They don’t deliver my newspaper. They don’t buy my groceries. I don’t see what they should be in there providing my Internet service.
This statement begs the question, “what are the core functions of government, of local governments, of municipalities?” I think we can stipulate the following — education, public health, public safety, support for the local economy (businesses, employment, job training), and local road, electric, gas, and water infrastructure oversight.
As The National Broadband Plan puts it in their executive summary, our broadband infrastructure should support
consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and
homeland security, community development, health care delivery,
energy independence and efficiency, education, employee
training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job
creation and economic growth, and other national purposes.
Now let’s use Representative Samuelson’s logic and stipulate that entities should stay focused on their core competencies. None of the above core functions of government, as facilitated by broadband, are at all the core function of cable companies or telecoms. These private sector businesses are in the business of providing internet, television, and phone services, so that they and their shareholders profit. Community good, delivering civic applications, services and content, are not part of their mandate. They might, as part of their concession agreements, with say, a public access channel, but they do so grudgingly, as the quality of these required offerings well demonstrates.
So let’s have the telcos and cable companies do what they do best — provide basic internet connectivity to communities, while the communities themselves build local broadband networks, community intranets if you will, that would deliver all the core services stipulated above. The entire community network would then be linked to the internet via a some redundant shared links, large pipes if you will. In this topology, it is not at all necessary for every resident and business to have a separate connection/subscription to internet access (as much as that would be desirable to a business that sells subscriptions to internet access. Instead, Time-Warner, AT+T, Embarq, or any third party provider would compete to provide these large shared internet pipes to entire communities. The bulk cost for that pipe would then be spread among the users of the community intranet, lowering web access costs radically for everyone, even as the intranet is delivering vital local digital services.
Looking at IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, we can infer that that the smart cities of tomorrow will be architected in this fashion, providing an array of local network services as the world goes wireless and digital. Municipal networks, taken in this light, are inevitable, just as the cable companies and telcos will inevitably become the providers of the large pipes that will connect communities to the larger internet. They will become in short utilities, and the public will be the great beneficiary.
Of course in the meantime, the incumbent monopolies will continue to exercise their influence on our politicians in the name of ‘preserving competition,’ and Americans will continue to pay much more for much less, relative to other advanced industrial societies. What has to happen is that communities need to realize their power. If the future of the internet is in it’s becoming pervasive and local, then who is better positioned than the communities themselves to own those networks as they provide an essential civic infrastructure?