Bill to Ban Community Broadband Introduced in North Carolina

Producers: Stevie Converse and Candace Clement
Media Minutes, May 1, 2009, http://www.freepress.net/

Wilson, North Carolina, is a small city of 47,000, located TK miles east of Raleigh. It grew up with the tobacco industry at the turn of the 20th century. And while tobacco remains, the boom years are in the past, and the city is looking ahead to the new information economy.

Internet service for Wilson had been slow and unreliable. So in 2006, the city built a fiber-optic ring that connected city facilities like City Hall, parks and recreation and town offices to super-fast broadband. After requests from local businesses, the City Council voted to expand the fiber network to the entire city. Brian Bowman is the public affairs manager for the City of Wilson.

Brian Bowman: We went to Time Warner and to Embarq and said, we would love for you to build a fiber-to-the-premise network in Wilson. Embarq said they wanted to work with us to partner on that. Turned out it didn't work out because we couldn't meet that middle ground for both of us to work out. And Time Warner just said, "No, we're not going to do that right now." So we said, "Ok, we'll do it ourselves."

Wilson's network, called Greenlight, is up and running, with connections up to 100 megabits per second -- which makes it among the fastest services available in the country. The city offers triple-play package of TV, phone and Internet for $99 per month, every month. That beats Time Warner Cable's package that has fewer channels, slower upload speeds and costs 40 percent more at the start.

After less than a year in business, Greenlight has already signed up more than 3,000 customers. And that apparently has made Time Warner Cable, Embarq and AT&T very nervous. They've backed a new bill in the North Carolina state legislature that would ban the use of certain municipal funds to finance and maintain a broadband network and would cut off local communities from receiving money for broadband from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Brian Bowman: If this bill had been law when we started, Greenlight would not exist today. It simply sandbags the cities where it's not possible or practical to do it. That's the effect of the bill.

The bill's sponsors are clearly taking their marching orders from the cable and phone companies. Bowman describes a recent hearing.

Brian Bowman: You know who's in the room with you, and it is a handful of private-sector providers who seem to be the ones who were talking in the hallways to the sponsors. We saw a person from Time Warner, in fact, hand a note to one of the sponsors during the meeting, and the sponsor then spoke up, so all you know officially is who the sponsors are, but, you know, you can see what's happening in the room.

Bowman says that Wilson is one of those cities that doesn't have the population density that makes it attractive to private industry.

Brian Bowman: If profit was going to be the motive, we were going to be waiting, potentially, decades to get this critical service, which we believe our businesses need. And right now, we're doing it ourselves, we're having good results, and this law would essentially keep other cities in North Carolina from being able to do the same thing.