Cable companies blocked municipal broadband in NC and left a gap. Let others fill it.

Published October 15, 2020

By Clark Jenkins

Nearly a decade ago now, the North Carolina General Assembly approved legislation that essentially blocked municipalities from acting as internet service providers, barring any new or expanded municipal-owned and operated systems.

At the time, Wilson had been building its Greenlight system, with lightning-fast internet speeds, and a handful of other North Carolina cities and towns were following suit. The large telecommunications companies – Time-Warner-Cable (now Spectrum), AT&T and CenturyLINK – argued that this amounted to unfair government subsidized competition.

Those arguments seemed reasonable enough to a majority of state legislators and carried the day. But those companies also pledged then that they had both the capability and will to address the poor service plaguing rural North Carolina. 

Nine years later, those service gaps remain.
The consequences of the inability of the major telecommunications providers to get fast, reliable service to areas of rural North Carolina make life for rural residents more dire every day. That was the case before COVID-19. It is even more the case today as residents work from home remotely, requiring good internet connections; schools are forced to reach students remotely via computer link; and more and more of our elderly residents require virtual health care through the tools of telemedicine.

That this digital divide has not been solved is not the fault of any single company, entity or individual. It is expensive to serve less densely populated areas.

Nonetheless, we as a state must recognize that the evidence is now overwhelming: The private sector alone is not going to solve this issue, and the very future of the state’s rural economy is at stake. Internet service is essential infrastructure, and this pandemic has proven that beyond any rational arguments to the contrary.

Meanwhile, some of the larger providers in North Carolina have financial problems of their own that make investments in service upgrades difficult. Frontier and Windstream, two of the state’s largest providers after the aforementioned companies, have both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the past two years. During that same period, Wall Street publications have been filled with speculation that CenturyLink may sell off its residential business because that side of their business is not growing. Suddenlink has been purchased by a French company and struggles with well-documented service interruptions.

But we have smaller, home-grown companies that are hungry for this business, that is when a business model is workable that would limit their initial investments by partnering with local governments, nonprofits or others.

 The General Assembly has taken some positive steps in recent years with a grant program and opening up the use of electric co-op assets to improve service.

It’s not enough, though. The stakes are too high, the effort too limited.

A number of rural North Carolina towns own electric systems whose assets have been sidelined by the 2011 legislation. This is infrastructure that can help subsidize new and faster service without additional taxpayer money. These same towns cannot receive U.S. Department of Agriculture broadband grants due to state law. The state’s Golden LEAF Foundation, created to help rural economies, cannot provide grants to these towns for internet backbone investments for the same reason.

These restrictions are unreasonable. Keeping these assets from better use is unreasonable.

It is past time for the larger telecommunications companies to stop their lobbying efforts to prevent us from bringing all tools to the table. Rural North Carolina must move forward, and public and private sector leaders in this state need to either help that happen, or get out the way.

Note; This piece was originally published in The News and Observer on October 11, 2020. It is reprinted with permission by the author, a former State Senator.