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A Threat to Community Infrastructure in the Carolinas

Despite the clear need for states to support community efforts to create jobs by investing in critical infrastructure, right-wing legislation in North Carolina and South Carolina seems to want to take away the people’s rights to build broadband in their communities. The bills – HB3508/SB483 in South Carolina and HB129/SB87 in North Carolina – place onerous requirements for community-based broadband networks, threatening their existence and economic growth. As our states continue to deal with the fallout of the Great Recession, broadband build-out is the critical infrastructure investment needed to put Americans back to work and rebuild prosperity.

Community infrastructure has played a critical role in the history of our nation’s economic growth, including the installation of electricity wires and landline phones in all areas of the country. The success of lighting every household in America occurred thanks to local ownership of infrastructure that over a span of 70 years produced jobs, stimulated innovation, and ensured accountability for our local governments. Just like electricity, broadband is now the basic, necessary infrastructure that must be guaranteed by policy and investment in order to ensure our nation’s economic survival. We need broadband to apply to jobs, to search for jobs, and to be competent in our jobs. With a third of our nation still digitally disconnected, several stakeholders, including our local governments, must step up to support this basic infrastructure. At a time when the economic vitality of our communities is at stake, the right wing is focused on taking away this critical tool.

Why community-based broadband: Local entities – e.g. municipalities, counties, and non-profits – have often taken power in their own hands to serve their communities’ need for broadband services, particularly in places where the private sector won’t operate. Local efforts nationwide have established networks that increase broadband access by making it affordable. By allowing local entities to build their own networks, a truly competitive market for broadband services is reached, and when all networks are placed on an equal footing, a reduction in prices ensues. In North Carolina, for example, the largest cable provider raised rates 5-50% each year in 2007 and 2008 in all communities except those where municipalities were providing competitive cable service.

In addition to providing affordable services to their constituencies, governments themselves can leverage their networks for their own use. For example, local broadband networks facilitate the operation of public safety networks, making our communities more secure. Community-based networks give local governments a means to implement costs-saving mechanisms by using city infrastructure, such as telephone poles and water towers, to lower the cost of leasing locations for Wi-Fi transmitters. Community projects can also engage volunteers to construct and maintain the network. Hence, community based networks inspire civic participation, involving every member to install, maintain, and make use of broadband networks. Community-based networks are here to offer a public service, not to make a profit.

Corporate profits over shared prosperity: The right wing has mobilized across the country on behalf of corporate interests to deter the economic growth created by community-based broadband networks. Nineteen states already have laws in their books restricting cities and towns from building their own broadband networks. And this year, attempts in other states have come in full force. Legislation is moving very quickly in North and South Carolina that would block development of municipal systems, public-private partnerships, and other community-based alternatives that have brought the benefits of broadband to millions across the country.

These bills virtually eliminate municipal networks. A key requirement is that their financing be generated only from the systems that would be used to operate them, pretty much taking away the prospect for any federal and/or state funding. Such provisions are worrisome, especially when funding has already been apportioned by federal grants, and their enactment would mean that such available funds would be put to waste. Another unfair restriction prohibits municipal providers from offering promotions to customers or setting prices below the cost of service.

Private companies would also not be subject to the bills’ numerous provisions, like rate-setting and annual auditing. Preferential treatment would be afforded only to private companies and restrictions would only be placed on structures managed by communities. It is time to stop favoring the profits of large corporations over investments in community infrastructure needed to ensure job creation, shared prosperity, and the broad economic security of our states.

Full Resources from this Article

A Threat to Community Infrastructure in the Carolinas

New America Foundation – From the Digital Divide to Digital Excellence
Craig Settles – Day 2: The Battle for North Carolina Broadband
Progressive States Network – Broadband: Four Legislative Steps to Ensure Economic Growth
Progressive States Network – Blueprint for Economic Security 2011: Job Creation
Institute for Local Self-Reliance – Breaking the Broadband MonopolyCommunity Based Broadband Community Broadband Networks – Asheville Opposes Rep Avila's Attempt to Enshrine Time Warner Cable Monopoly

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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