Roughly a year ago now, I spoke to the members of Gov. Roy Cooper’s broadband task force and noted how, from the viewpoint of anyone looking objectively at the issue of broadband access, the public-private partnership model advocated by NCLM is a “no-brainer.”
Obviously, a lot has happened in the world since then. The legislation that our organization backed, the FIBER NC Act, did not pass this year largely based on opposition by the larger incumbent telecommunications companies. At the same time, yet another of the major internet providers in the state, Frontier Communications, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and on Wall Street there has been growing speculation that another, CenturyLink, will be selling its residential business after several years of retail home business contraction.
Even more recently, AT&T announced that it would be pulling back serving a thousand households or more in the state where it now provides aging and slow DSL service, meaning those homes could be left without service at all.
And, of course, these developments have occurred against a backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced students and employees to learn and work at home.
If allowing local governments to bring their assets to bear in addressing the critical infrastructure issue of our time was a no-brainer in December of 2019, it is even more of a no-brainer in December of 2020.
It has simply become unacceptable and unconscionable that a handful of companies stand in the way of allowing this to happen almost a decade after banding together to block municipalities from building and operating their own systems, and proclaiming as they did so that they would address the digital divide in the state.
Despite taking hundreds of millions of dollars in FCC grants, they haven’t.
The implications are dire, not just for individuals, but for whole towns and their economic future.
What makes this public-private partnership model even more of a no-brainer is that there are small, home-grown companies in North Carolina that would love to be on the private side of these partnerships, connecting homes and businesses and running the retail service. To make the business model work, they need the fiber backbone or existing infrastructure that municipalities can bring to the table.
And let’s be clear. These types of partnerships would be fully open to the same companies in this state that don’t want them. They could participate. In fact, in Missouri, CenturyLink has partnered with the City of Springfield to bring lightning speed internet to residents there.
So, what’s the big deal?
It is that these larger telecommunication companies don’t want competition, even in the places that they poorly serve and are potentially walking away from. For some—loaded down with debt and left with aging technology—they do not have the financial wherewithal to make the investments that are going to close the digital divide and bring reliable, fast internet to all of North Carolina.
The time has come to recognize this reality. Doing so, the North Carolina General Assembly should make its first priority upon meeting in January passage of legislation that incorporates the principles of the FIBER NC Act and takes another substantial step in closing our digital divide.
Paul Meyer is the executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.