Broadband bill passes House

The state House has okayed a bill that would make it more difficult for cities to offer broadband service.

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Broadband cable, Internet service
Laura Leslie

NC House lawmakers have given final approval to a measure that would make it much more difficult for municipalities to set up their own broadband service – even when telecom companies refuse to serve them.

H129, the “Level Playing Field” bill, is backed by Time-Warner, CenturyLink, and other telecoms who say cities have unfair advantages in competing with commercial interests.

Bill sponsor Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, says businesses need protection from “predatory” local governments. “We have to have some sort of framework that everybody understands when you go into this. This bill is going to establish those rules.”

The measure would not apply to systems currently operating in Salisbury, Wilson, Mooresville/Iredell, and Morganton. But it would restrict cities who might consider offering similar services.

“It is not anti-competition,” Avila said. “The cities can enter into it [broadband service]. It is not going to be easy, though. It’s going to be tough.”

Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, said “tough” doesn’t cover it. “This bill will make it practically impossible” for cities to provide a “fundamental service,” he said.

“Where’s the bill to govern Time Warner?” Faison asked. “Let’s be clear about whose bill this is. This is Time Warner’s bill. You need to know who you’re doing this for.”

The bill would require municipal broadband services to make a profit on their systems, as a business would have to do. But Democrats say it’s not an appropriate comparison. “Many times we talk in this chamber about the importance of local control. We are, in this bill, taking away local control,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.

Critics say the measure will cost the state jobs, especially in rural communities trying to build or recruit 21st-century businesses. “They’re making it out to be a bunch of folks in sweatpants that want to download Netflix faster,” said Jay Ovittore with SEATOA, a public network advocacy group. “That’s not the case at all. The reality is that this is about job growth and economic development, and they’re failing to catch that point. It’s a crucial infrastructure.”

“It’s a bad bill, it’s a bad bill, it’s a bad bill,” repeated Ovittore. “And we fully intend to make this an election issue.”

The measure passed the House 81-37. It now moves to the Senate.


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