Getting to Universal Broadband in North Carolina — Sen. Jeff Jackson

After holding town halls in every county, we continue to roll out our North Carolina Agenda. Last week we put forward our Hourly Workers Agenda. More to come next week. — Jeff

Every politician in North Carolina says, “Everyone deserves broadband.”

The problem has been that we haven’t seen many plans for actually getting there.

A sound plan for universal broadband starts with repealing a bad law from ten years ago that banned cities and counties from installing their own broadband.

Around the General Assembly it’s called “the municipal ban,” and here’s what happened:

About 15 years ago, Wilson County wanted broadband. So it asked private providers to come and install it. They said no because it wouldn’t be profitable.

So Wilson installed broadband itself. The idea was to make it available to people just like a local utility service, like water or electricity. By 2008, Wilson had installed 600 miles of fiber throughout the county and called it Greenlight Community Broadband.

The private providers saw this as the beginning of a trend they didn’t like, so they sent their lobbyists to Raleigh and the majority party in the General Assembly passed a law that literally bans your town, city, or county from investing in high-speed internet on your behalf.

It was called the “Level the Playing Field Act.” The private providers argued that public entities — like towns and counties — shouldn’t be allowed to install broadband because they can operate without a profit margin and that puts the private providers at an unfair disadvantage.

The problem with that argument is that these are often towns and counties that private providers have turned down precisely because they can’t make a profit installing broadband.

So what are these counties supposed to do? Private companies won’t come and now the county is legally prohibited from making the investment itself.

That means the only way broadband can reach them is if the state subsidizes private efforts — which we do with millions of dollars each year, but honestly it hasn’t been nearly enough to close the gap.

Over half the state is limited to only one high-speed internet service provider, and there are some industry forces that would obviously like to keep it that way. But I believe that if your town wants to install fiber, it should be free to do so — and we should make clear by federal statute that, going forward, they will have that freedom.

Let me tell you what this looks like when you’re traveling the state.

We just did town halls in every county. At each stop, I would say to the crowd, “Hey folks, give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the general internet situation here. Is it basically good or basically bad?”

We got mixed results depending on where we were in the state, but out east it was just an ocean of thumbs down. Thumbs down across the whole region.

Until we got to Wilson. Then everyone gave two thumbs up.

Why? Because Wilson finished installing its public broadband *before* the ban went into effect. And it’s made a world of difference for their local economy and their families.

So to get to universal broadband, legalizing municipal internet is key, but there’s more to do beyond that — like partnering with rural electric cooperatives which have deep experience in getting low-cost utility service to rural counties. Those non-profit co-ops were created after the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 and they helped revolutionize rural life in our state by bringing electricity out to farming communities. With respect to broadband, their expertise and infrastructure have been under-utilized assets.

Then there’s simply the matter of scaling up funding for laying fiber. There’s no getting around the fact that we simply need a lot more fiber in the ground. There’s an existing state program to do that, but it’s woefully underfunded. Hundreds of millions of dollars from North Carolina’s share of the American Rescue Plan (i.e. the Covid relief bill passed earlier this year) could be used for that purpose — and there’s bipartisan support for a state bill that would do that. Then there’s the bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate which may contain another $100 million for broadband — which is not a massive amount, given the scale of the challenge, but is certainly welcome.

In parts of our state where low-earth orbit satellite may be the best option (i.e., Starlink), we need to help close the affordability gap for low-income families. These new satellite options came up in conversation most often in our town halls in the west, where the mountains make fiber installation more expensive than any other part of our state. The technology here is moving quickly which makes this the hardest part of this issue to predict and plan, but early results have been promising and scaling up this kind of service may become highly cost-efficient in the near-term.

We should also strengthen the Lifeline program, which exists to help people afford broadband service. Right now, only a quarter of families who are eligible for Lifeline currently participate in the program. We need to implement “coordinated enrollment” so that families who qualify for certain other government assistance benefits — like Medicaid and SNAP — would be automatically enrolled in Lifeline.

So the bottom-line is that there isn’t just one lever to pull here, but if we just did the obvious stuff — legalize municipal broadband, provide modest subsidies to very low-income families, and use relief funds to scale-up our fiber investment — we’d see tremendous progress very quickly.

Those are the components of a realistic plan that is practical, affordable, and would be widely supported across our state.

That’s what I’m going to campaign on, and if elected, that’s what I’m going to fight for.

- Sen. Jeff Jackson

North Carolina State Senator