in Musings, Politics

Why we need municipal Internet

Imagine, if you will, a world where the streets in this country are privately owned by the country’s shipping companies. In our more modern example, Let’s say your particular street is owned by a company called FredEx.

Now let’s say you want to order a CD from a far-away retailer. Realizing that it owns the street in front of your house and that few other options exist, FredEx chooses to triple the shipping rate it charges to deliver your CD. And why shouldn’t it? FredEx knows it has the best delivery path available to your house, if not an outright monopoly.

Sure, you could always choose to have your CD delivered by your postman, Mo Dem, but his is a walking route so it’s painfully slow. On the other hand, you could ship your CD by the “competing” shipper, U Pay Us, but FredEx still gets its cut for its road.

What once looked like competition is anything but. You’re trapped.

This is what’s happening with the 21st century street known as the Information Superhighway. Billion-dollar telecoms own the digital streets leading to our homes and are not keen to share. Cozy duopolies have arisen that sing to high heaven how “Internet competition has arrived in North Carolina” and yet this so-called competition has only brought higher prices. Where’s our promised benefit?

Fed up with the major telecom’s inaction and unwillingness to invest in the technologies of the future, enterprising North Carolina communities like Wilson, Salisbury, and Morganton have taken steps to control their digital destiny. Faced with this competition, the telecoms are working the state legislature, seeking to pile on as many restrictions on these public initiatives as they can. That’s what the “Level Playing Field” Act (H1252/S1004) gives us. It’s a step backwards in every sense of the word.

Wilson’s Greenlight system provides Internet, TV, and phone service at prices the telecoms wouldn’t. This successful system is the envy of geek citizens across the state, and the last lifeline available to our communities still reeling from the collapse of the state’s furniture and textile industries. By investing in their own digital roads, these cities are investing in their future.

The bill is largely redundant anyway with most of these restrictions already present in the state statutes. Enterprises funded by revenue bonds cannot be funded with property tax money. Proposals and meetings are fully open to the public and debated in a public forum. What’s more, the leaders of these enterprises are held accountable by the voting public.

Want to truly level the playing field? Why not hold our private enterprises to the same standards we do with our public enterprises. Let’s start by making our telecom executives subject to public election. Make the telecoms’ business strategy and planning meetings subject to the Open Records law. and invite the public in. And open their books as well, just like the municipalities. Maybe then we’ll see how subscribers living in areas with real competition get sweet deals financed by those of us who aren’t. I also suspect those obscene executive salaries will be the first thing getting leveled on a truly level playing field.

Like the public highway and aviation systems that make it possible to ship a CD across the country, the Internet was built with public funds. In fact, for many years commercial players weren’t even allowed on the Internet. In light of this, the notion that the government has no business being in the Internet business is absurd on its face. And just as the U.S. Postal Service has no right to drive 100 MPH on our federal highways, nor should a municipal Internet system have to favor a public service over a private one: they can both be equal partners.

The roads of tomorrow are not made of asphalt and concrete: they are made of fiber. Like the roads that are equally accessible to any entity, public or private, so should our “fiber streets” be shared by all. And that can truly only happen if those connections are open to all, as public as our city streets.

  1. Sure did. I was there.

    The committee punted the bill to the House Public Utilities Committee, which means the Science and Technology committee couldn’t deal with it. While the bill is not dead, it is wounded. Today’s action does not bode well for its survival.

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