Broadband bill bogs down

Posted March 17, 2011

For a while this morning, it looked like a controversial bill to limit public broadband systems would make it through the House without any public comment.

H129, the “Level Playing Field” bill, is the latest chapter in a long-running battle between telecommunications companies and municipalities. Local officials in five areas have set up their own municipal broadband service when cable companies wouldn't provide high-speed service to their areas. Cable companies are now seeking new restrictions on municipalities to offset what they say are unfair competitive advantages.

The measure would put strict new limits on existing systems, and make it harder for other municipalities to follow in their footsteps. More details here.

The bill was hustled through the House Public Utilities committee March 2nd, where many in attendance believed the voice vote went against it, even though the chairman declared that it passed – and then gaveled the committee closed, despite calls for a vote count.  There were no public comments.

House Finance today appeared to be headed in the same direction. After an hour of debate over several amendments, Chairman Mitch Setzer (R-Catawba) told the committee he would call a vote today, despite protests from committee Democrats that the crowd of people waiting in the back of the room should be allowed to comment. "If time allows we'll hear from them,” Setzer said, “but we're gonna vote this bill."

Eight minutes later, after a conversation with Finance co-chair Julia Howard, R-Davie, Setzer reversed himself. “This committee will bring this bill back next Wednesday to allow the public to comment.”

Maybe Setzer’s change of heart was an effort to provide more openness. (It is Sunshine Week, after all.) But H129’s opponents think the real reason for the delay is to give its supporters a chance to shore it up after two amendments weakened it today.

H129 would place severe restrictions on new municipal broadband service unless it’s in an “unserved” community, defined as one where 90% of citizens don’t have access to high-speed connectivity. An amendment by Bill Faison, D-Orange, changed the threshold to 50%.

Bill sponsor Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, argued against the change, saying citizens shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes supporting services they’re not using. But Faison said 90% was too high. “In all fairness, you and Time Warner put this bill together,” Faison said. “It’s helping Time Warner maintain a monopoly.” His amendment passed, 14 to 12.

A second amendment, by Harry Warren, R-Rowan, aimed to exempt four existing systems from the bill’s restrictions – his hometown of Salisbury, plus Wilson, Morganton, and Mooresville/Iredell. That amendment passed, too, 15-13, also over the protests of the bill’s supporters.
But supporters may have the last laugh. After the meeting adjourned, it emerged that a “miscommunication” between Warren and staff attorney Heather Fennell had resulted in a “drafting mistake” in his amendment. What was passed today exempts existing systems from some of the bill’s restrictions, but others would still apply – including a rule that would make it impossible for those systems to expand their coverage areas.

Warren says he’ll try again next week with a revised amendment. That gives H129 proponents a week to build opposition to it. Will the votes still be there Wednesday? We’ll find out.


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  • dshows Mar 21, 2011

    Thank you for FINALLY covering this. What took so long? Has anyone thought about looking into Rep. Faison's accusations about TWC's involvement in the drafting and pushing this bill? Whatever happened to investigative reporting? Wake up WRAL, your sleeping through one of the most significant corruption/malfeasance stories since Jim Black. While Washington is working to expand Broadband access to all, NC is contemplating restricting access and further protecting a monopoly that has a long and rich history of not providing adequate service and providing terrible customer service.

  • TheBullCity Mar 21, 2011

    Send the republican cable company packing in 2012.

  • driverkid3 Mar 19, 2011

    TheBullCity::::When you think of Republicans, think of Time Warner Cable. The Republicans are the cable company of government.

    WRONG! It the dems that are greedy and want to take money from everyone in the for them and the useless programs they splurge on! Just like TWC!

  • fedupin benson Mar 18, 2011

    Bill sponsor Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, argued against the change, saying citizens shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes supporting services they’re not using. HAHAHAHA Really? Ok, can we apply that to everything then? Also, she said the taxpayers shouldn't go into debt to pay for services..Its a mere 28 million, But they WANTED those services, TWC would not provide them as it wasn't "profitable" to do so. And if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is. Debt? Really? I mean REALLY?? They have no problems cranking up the public debt for whatever reason they like, but oh noze, TWC says that debt is baaad, so we must protect their Monopoly. I call shenanigans, and someone needs to investigate Ms. Avila. This is blatant corporatism.

  • TheBullCity Mar 17, 2011

    When you think of Republicans, think of Time Warner Cable. The Republicans are the cable company of government.