North Carolina’s Cities Want Their Broadband Authority Clarified by State Government

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Doing so could open the door for more local governments to fund and install infrastructure for private retail networks that reach underserved neighborhoods.

Current North Carolina law must be clarified so local governments can make widespread use of public-private partnerships to close the state’s broadband gap, according to a white paper released Wednesday by the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

The state’s geography and demographics see a large percentage of the population living in rural areas that are less profitable for private internet service providers to reach, per the report, “Leaping the Digital Divide: Encouraging Policies and Partnerships to Improve Broadband Access Across North Carolina.”

Uncertainty in the North Carolina policy landscape compounds the problem by handcuffing the public sector and failing to incentivize ISPs to provide faster, better service to meet growing business, telehealth and educational demands.

“There’s very little in our state laws that would do that,” Erin Wynia, NCLM legislative counsel, told Route Fifty by phone. “We don’t even have a grant program right now.”

Establishing a competitive grant program within the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office to fund public and private broadband projects would be a good first step, Wynia added, because it would help ISPs make their business case for extending broadband to less lucrative areas.

Business cases are easier for ISPs to make in high-income urban, suburban and middle-income neighborhoods, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said Tuesday during remarks at The New School’s Digital Equity Laboratory in New York City.

“And as you already know, there is a glaring correlation between areas of high poverty, and places where companies have not invested in new technologies, such as fiber,” Clyburn said. “The impact here is severe. Those being left out, not only are less able to get ahead, but they are more likely to be left behind.”

North Carolina’s broadband gap, like that in many states, is understated in FCC data, which is collected from private providers and looks at census blocks served. If a single business or home within a block is eligible to receive service, the FCC counts the entire block as receiving service “whether or not that’s actually happening on the ground,” Wynia said.

The resulting data distortion overstates the amount of broadband service provided on FCC maps, so much so that NCBIO is now attempting to crowdsource the same information. The problem is a resident lacking broadband in their home has to find an internet connection at work or the library to report a lack of service.

Should North Carolina state government affirm local governments’ authority to raise and spend money for broadband infrastructure, they could turn around and lease it to private and nonprofit providers operating retail networks while having more say in where service is provided.

“The more skin in the game you have financially, the more you can control the project,” said Wynia, who co-authored the white paper.

Local communities can provide intangible benefits by speeding up their permitting process and granting access to rights of way and pre-existing conduit through which to run fiber.

In the models the report suggests, local government is not a service provider. Wilson, North Carolina attempted that using its local energy utility infrastructure as the backbone, only for private industry to successfully lobby the state General Assembly in 2011 to hit the city with financial penalties in order to continue offering service.

The resulting law is one of several clouding the matter of local authority.

About 70 percent of U.S. adults believe local governments should be allowed to build their own broadband networks, including 67 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey.

States like North Carolina can speed things along by mandating underground conduit installation for ISP use whenever agencies like the Department of Transportation digs along public rights of way during projects. Similarly, a “dig once” policy would require utilities to coordinate with local governments to simultaneously install conduit or fiber when they build or update their infrastructure.

Digital literacy programs incentivizing low-income customers to adopt broadband, driving further ISP investment, are a final report recommendation.

“In an ideal world, the FCC would be acting in a manner that encourages innovation and investment in communities that need it most, because digital equity can only occur when there is full digital inclusion,” Clyburn said. “We will only get there, through targeted investments, and the elimination of historic, systemic and structural barriers.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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