It’s time we make broadband a utility

Posted 4/14/21

In the early 1930s, few North Carolinians outside metropolitan areas had electricity. Private companies supplied power to cities and large towns, but they had no financial incentive to run lines …

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It’s time we make broadband a utility

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In the early 1930s, few North Carolinians outside metropolitan areas had electricity. Private companies supplied power to cities and large towns, but they had no financial incentive to run lines beyond municipal borders.

Things changed in 1935 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal included the Rural Electrification Administration to incentivize expansion of electrical infrastructure into unserved communities. Eventually, electrical power regulation was organized under the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and today it’s reasonable to expect that no matter where you live, you’ll have electricity.

It’s time for broadband access to evolve accordingly.

“It’s just like the way electricity was,” House Minority Leader Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54) told me. “If electricity was still a luxury item, then in a place like Chatham County, there’d be no way to ever get it provided to some areas. But once it becomes a utility, then there’s a governmental obligation to make sure that it’s provided to all areas of the state.”

It’s not hard to argue the exigency of broadband access in our 21st Century lifestyle. Internet is integrated with basic everyday functions — a truism the pandemic made painfully clear. Without internet, businesses shutter. Without internet, education falters. Without internet, you get left behind.

“It’s past absurd that so much of the county can have poor broadband access,” said Reives, who lives in Goldston. “To put it in perspective, why it’s so absurd, think about this: one of the things that we’re doing in North Carolina, generally, but especially in Chatham County, is we’re promoting economic development ... But you can go into Chatham County, and live in the most expensive neighborhood in the county, and have the most expensive house, and there’s still a 75% chance you’re not going to get adequate internet.”

While Chatham’s internet deficiency only reached crisis levels amid the pandemic, the problem began more than 20 years ago. In 1999, the General Assembly passed a law restricting electric cooperatives’ access to capital for telecommunications. Twelve years later, in 2011, legislators compounded the issue with a law obstructing local governments from building their own broadband networks.

“Basically, what happened is that in the town of Wilson, the town itself took on the infrastructure needed for broadband, and eventually started distributing broadband,” Reives previously told the News + Record about the 2011 law. “And of course, the private companies that were involved did not take kindly to that. So, the General Assembly at that point passed a law forbidding townships, counties and municipalities from being involved in distribution of broadband and its infrastructure at all.”

Both laws pander to private power companies who retain unshared control over North Carolina’s broadband expansion. They determine where internet goes and — like power companies in the 1930s — they have no financial incentive to supply rural areas where user payments will fall short of operating expenses.

That’s just business. Private companies can’t be blamed for seeking profit. But they lay no just claim to exclusive building rights. Municipalities and counties should have the authority to provide internet where the big providers dare not go.

“Even 10 years ago you could survive without the internet. The internet was still a choice that you made,” Reives said. “But the Wilson law argument just doesn’t make sense anymore. Pre-pandemic, and especially post-pandemic, you just flat out cannot function in this 21st century without access to sound broadband.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree. Earlier this month, a “broadband consumer protection” bill with bipartisan sponsorship (though mostly Republican) passed its first reading in the House. HB 476 would “provide oversight of broadband service by the North Carolina Utilities Commission.”

But Reives doesn’t expect the bill to pass into law, and not for the usual Republicans versus Democrats trope.

“It’s because we have the same leadership that passed the 2011 Wilson law, and there’s just no reason for them to back down,” he said. “I mean, these are literally almost the exact same leaders ... That’s the reason it’s not going to get movement. And that’s the reason that even though it is a Republican — who is in the majority — writing the bill, it’s probably not going to pass.”

For General Assembly leaders’ hardheadedness, though, businesses are suffering. A new Chatham transplant emailed me last week to ask about the state’s broadband fracas. Having only lived in several of the nation’s major cities — and never having considered that internet connectivity might be a privilege — she was baffled to find gaps in Chatham’s network.

“In the absence of high speed internet service, the communities in western Chatham fall farther and farther behind,” she wrote me. “This makes them less competitive in the business environment and creates a spiral of non-competitive businesses, fewer job opportunities, poverty and poor education.”

Poignant insights from a newcomer; it doesn’t take much to identify North Carolina’s fatuous broadband dilemma. And it shouldn’t take much to address the problem.

“I think the whole issue is completely within the state’s purview to fix,” Reives said.

But the old guard will stick to its guns, and Big Internet lobbyists will keep making a fuss, all at the expense of N.C. commerce.

“It’ll be as big a fight as you’ve ever seen,” Reives said.

Other business news

• Chatham artists are making waves across the Carolinas’ art scene.

A painting by Chathan’s Jim Aiken, called Phase Transitions, was accepted into the national, juried Art League of Hilton Head’s Biennial of 2021, the Chatham Artists Guild announced last week. The acrylic on canvas will be on exhibition from May 4 to 26 with a reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, May 7, at 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928.

Guild-member Colleen Black Semelka will be a featured artist in the North Carolina Pottery Center show, Raku: Spontaneity in the Flames, which runs through June 19. Raku pottery incorporates “elements of knowledge, experience, excitement, unpredictability and spontaneity,” The CAG said in a release, “and is somewhat akin to a semi-controlled convergence of science, craft, art and magic with a bit of chaos thrown in for good measure.” The NC Pottery Center located at 233 East Avenue, Seagrove, NC 27341 and is currently open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

• Frankie Hayes, of Siler City has a new art, home and furniture gallery called Reliks.

“I will be offering design services, custom upholstery and lamp and lighting refurbishing,” Hayes said.

Reliks held a socially distanced grand opening last Thursday at its downtown location at 117 E. Second Street, Siler City.

Have an idea for what Chatham business topics I should write about? Send me a note at dldolder@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @dldolder.

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