Public Investment in Broadband Infrastructure

Rick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.

If you have not followed the news on this, the City of Wilson, NC recently invested $28 million on a fiber optic network throughout the community and now operates Greenlight cable, internet, and phone as a local utility. After the big cable companies would not invest in fiber, the community decided to make a public investment. The thinking is that in the 21st Century, investing in broadband is a public good much like roads and other public utilities.

A couple things make this case particularly interesting. First, Wilson in only the second municipality in North Carolina to do this and one of just several dozen in the U.S. Second, Time-Warner Cable has been fighting what Wilson has done vigorously, including trying to get legislation passed that would effectively ban community-based ISPs on the grounds of unfair competition. This raises an interesting question regarding the role of government in infrastructure development.

Public leaders like Goings argue that in the 21st century we ought to be thinking about broadband infrastructure in much the same way communities have historically thought of water, sewer, and road infrastructure. Those “bricks-and-mortar” type assets have long been viewed as public goods essential to community vitality and growth.  Now, some argue, broadband infrastructure is equally important to the long-term prosperity of communities.

In a recent announcement of  a $7.2 million stimulus award for broadband for one of his rural communities, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue said: “Broadband is the new dial tone of the 21st century….Internet access is as important to our communications infrastructure today as reliable telephone service was a century ago. Creating an advanced network will promote economic development, expand educational opportunities and improve the availability and efficiency of government services.” The logic follows that where private investment is not an option that it is appropriate for local communities to invest in broadband infrastructure. Obviously Time-Warner and other private telecommunications providers disagree. They believe it creates an unfair playing field.

What do you think about this issue? Should communities–particularly rural communities that are unlikely to see private investment in broadband infrastructure–look at broadband infrastructure in much the same way as they do other forms of community infrastructure? Is it an “essential utility” like water or roads? You can find out a lot more about Wilson’s experience and the battle in the General Assembly over HB 1252  on the Save NC Broadband blog. In terms of economic development, particularly in rural areas, this issue is huge and what the General Assembly decides to do with HB 1252 will  have significant implications on the future of public investment in broadband.

Rick Morse (41 Posts)

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

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