North Carolina Cities Push for OK to Build, Lease Internet Infrastructure

Local government leaders are asking state lawmakers to consider proposals giving them the authority to build out broadband infrastructure and charge providers for access.

by Colin Campbell, The News & Observer / March 23, 2018

(TNS) — RALEIGH, N.C. — With more than 600,000 North Carolina residents lacking any high-speed internet service, municipal leaders pushed this week for state policy changes designed to create public-private partnerships in which local governments build broadband infrastructure and lease it to private internet providers.

The regulatory change is part of a bill that passed the House but has been collecting dust in the Senate Rules Committee for nearly a year, and an NC League of Municipalities report released Wednesday makes similar proposals.

Rep. John Szoka, a Cumberland County Republican, and Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Macon County Republican, are co-sponsors of House Bill 68, called the "BRIGHT Futures Act," and joined municipal leaders for a news conference detailing the report.

"I'm hopeful that (Senate leaders) will take that bill as a basis and look at this report and add to it," he said. "We need to take action in the upcoming short session."

Supporters of the bill say cities, towns and counties could make use of what's known as "dark fiber" — additional capacity in existing infrastructure that government uses to connect traffic lights, schools and public facilities.

The League of Municipalities study found that the public-private partnership model is "probably the best way to extend it to the hard to reach places in our state," said Erin Wynia, author of the report. "Frankly, this challenge won't be met solely by the public sector or solely by the private sector."

The report also found potential for the state's electric cooperatives to help by leasing their infrastructure, but current law doesn't allow electric easements to be used for telecommunications purposes. Another recommendation is a "dig once" policy requiring government agencies to install broadband conduits (essentially pipes that can house fiber internet lines) during other construction projects, putting the infrastructure in place for future leases to internet providers.

The League of Municipalities is also calling for a state grant fund to help local governments build broadband infrastructure; Wynia said the report doesn't include a suggested funding amount but that Minnesota and New York have grant programs that could serve as models.

The report doesn't, however, call for policy changes that would allow local governments to both build and operate broadband internet networks — something the city of Wilson did before the legislature blocked future programs. That legislation was strongly supported by telecom companies that were concerned about public-sector competition, but Wynia said the Wilson program worked because the city owns and operates its electric system — an unusual characteristic.

"We believe that that model is not likely to succeed in most areas of the state because of the unique circumstances," she said. Szoka said he was careful to make sure his legislation "wasn't stepping on the toes of private business. ... I don't think there's any city that wants to be responsible for collecting monthly fees for an HBO subscription or anything else."

In Wednesday's news conference, municipal leaders highlighted the importance of broadband to education and economic development in their communities. Jacksonville Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lazzara said he was "on the verge of moving our company ... because I simply was stagnated by the broadband we had."

Jackie Hampton is the town clerk in Bolton, a town of about 700 people in Columbus County where many residents can't get reliable internet in their homes. "We have students who have to choose between going to lunch or going to a library or computer center to complete their homework because they have no access" at home, she said, adding that the local senior center parking lot is often full of people sitting in their cars to take advantage of the wi-fi.

Broadband, Lazzara said, "is no more a luxury than access to roads, water, sewer and electricity."

©2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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