Local Politics

Cities hope to switch off cable TV proposals

Posted April 15, 2009 6:51 p.m. EDT
Updated April 15, 2009 7:25 p.m. EDT

— Municipalities looking to provide residents with cable television and high-speed Internet service are trying to unplug companion bills in the General Assembly that seek to level the playing field for competitors in the market.

Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Wake, said House Bill 1252 would require cities providing Internet and cable to follow the same regulations as private companies like Time Warner Cable. For example, municipalities would have to establish separate communications service funds and couldn't use other city funds and taxes to subsidize the broadband service.

"We want to make sure that all parties that are involved are playing by the same rules," Harrell said.

Wilson borrowed more than $28 million two years ago to build a fiber-optic network to provide local residents with phone, Internet and cable services, and City Manager Grant Goings said that Harrell's bill and a companion bill in the Senate would prevent other cities from following suit.

"We would love a level playing field. Frankly, (these bills are) anything but," Goings said. "To take away any of the advantages that municipalities have would ensure that no municipalities will do this in the future."

Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in 2007. At the time, Google wrote letters to state legislators, urging them to vote against it because the proposal "threatened to undermine prosperity."

There was no word Wednesday on whether Google would get involved in the dispute again.

Brad Phillips, vice president of government and public affairs for Time Warner and president of the North Carolina Cable Telecommunications Association, said allowing municipalities to subsidize their cable services would be unfair to competitors.

"We don't mind the competition – we're accustomed to it – but if you're going to compete, do it on the same level playing field that everybody else has to do it," Phillips said. "Is it right for a local government to tax a local company and then use those taxes to compete with that company? We think that's unfair."

Kelli Kukura, legislative director for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, argued that the pending legislation is designed to bully cities and towns.

"This bill adds regulation upon regulation, and it is simply unfair. The intent of the bill is clearly to stop any municipal broadband work at the local level," Kukura said.