News: CJ Exclusives

FCC Moves Raise Awareness of Broadband Needs

Efforts by the agency to trump state laws puts Internet access in spotlight

The move by the Federal Communications Commission to trump state laws placing restrictions on cities that want to provide broadband service has raised awareness of high-speed Internet service in society, the head of a national telecommunications association said Tuesday.

“He elevated the level of discussion and the importance of what broadband means to Americans,” Steven Traylor, executive director of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, said of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Traylor was speaking at a breakout session on broadband for local governments during the National Association of Regional Council’s annual conference at the Raleigh Convention Center.

In February, Wheeler and the FCC issued a ruling that preempted some state laws that placed restrictions on municipal broadband systems. The FCC action followed a petition by the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga, Tenn., challenging their respective states’ authority to do so.

The FCC action is being challenged in court. The state of North Carolina has joined that challenge.

Will Aycock, general manager of Greenlight, the Wilson broadband company, said that the city petitioned the FCC to preempt the North Carolina law because it wanted to expand outside its city limits into nearby rural areas where the city also provides electricity service.

The North Carolina law prohibits cities from providing broadband service outside their corporate limits.

“Our primary goal with the petition was being able to expand out to all of our electric customers that wanted access to the network,” Aycock said after the session. He said roughly 5,000 of the city’s electricity customers live outside the corporate limits, some in adjacent counties.

“There’s a limited infrastructure as you begin to move outward from Wilson,” Aycock said.

The North Carolina law, passed in 2011, put restrictions on municipalities wanting to go into the broadband business, but did not ban them.

The law requires municipalities to get a vote of the people before borrowing money to build municipal broadband systems. It prohibits the use of non-communications sources to pay for broadband expenses, bans the practice of charging subscribers less than the actual cost of providing the service, and requires such entities to pay a comparable amount of local property taxes and state income taxes that a private entity would have to pay.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, who sponsored the 2011 law, said she doesn’t blame city officials for trying to get their residents better-quality broadband services.

“It definitely falls within the pervue of elected city officials to do the best for their citizens that they can,” Avila said. “My concern is how they fund it.”

Aycock said Wilson used certificates of participation, a type of bond that does not require voter approval, to finance its broadband operations.

Avila said citizens should be brought into the discussion, rather than just relying on what may be an over-rosy picture painted by a consultant. Avila said that can occur when voters are asked to approve the bonds to pay for the broadband construction.

Aycock, during his presentation, said that Wilson has been providing fiber optic broadband service since 2008. He said the city set out to do so to support the economic health of Wilson, enhance the quality of life for the citizens, and improve the delivery of city services.

“Broadband is critical in a central infrastructure,” Aycock said. He said many companies pick a site to locate based on the quality of the infrastructure, including broadband, that they can access.

The session also included a presentation by Pam O’Connor, a city council member from Santa Monica, Calif., discussing that city’s broadband efforts. “You can surf more than the ocean in Santa Monica now,” she said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.