Local governments do not favor themselves on taxes or right of ways or otherwise compete unfairly with incumbent telecommunications and incumbent cable companies. To the contrary, private incumbents enjoy a wealth of state and federal subsidies, guaranteed rates of return, regulated rates for pole attachments, etc. In addition, local telephone companies enjoyed years of regulated monopoly status to build positions of dominance they continue to enjoy. To pretend that these local incumbents, with their subsidies and regulated access, need to “level the playing field” to protect a “free market” against local government systems flies in the face of reality.
Big Bucks: Why North Carolina Outlawed Community Networks
Less than a year after North Carolina became the 19th state to create barriers to community networks, effectively outlawing them, the non-partisan organization Follow the Money has crunched the numbers and found that private telecommunications interests donated quite heavily to lawmakers that pushed their bill through the Legislature:
According to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Dialing Up the Dollars: Telecommunication Interests Donated Heavily to NC Lawmakers, Republican lawmakers and those who held key leadership positions, sponsored the bill, and/or who voted in favor of the bill received considerably more campaign contributions from the telecommunication donors than did their colleagues. For example, lawmakers who voted in favor of HB 129 received on average 76 percent more than the average received by those who voted against the bill. The four primary sponsors of the bill received an average of $9,438 each, more than double the $3,658 given on average to lawmakers who did not sponsor the bill.
Recall that Time Warner Cable pushed this bill for years with some help from AT&T, CenturyLink, and others that stood to benefit by limiting broadband competition. But the Legislature wisely refused to enact it... until 2011.
Now we have a better sense of what may have shifted the balance. Consider this:
Thom Tillis, who became speaker of the house in 2011, received $37,000 in 2010–2011 (despite running unopposed in 2010), which is more than any other lawmaker and significantly more than the $4,250 he received 2006–2008 combined. AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 in early-mid January, just before he was sworn in as speaker on January 26. Tillis voted for the bill, and was in a key position to ensure it moved along the legislative pipeline.
Running unopposed for office, he collected more money from the cable and phone companies than any other Representative and almost 10 times as much as in the previous two cycle combined. As Speaker, he set the agenda and decided priorities. At a time when communities need as many broadband options as possible, he pushed a bill to limit competition.
It does not prove corruption, but in the immortal lyrics of C&C Music Factory, it "makes you go, hmmmm."
Senator Apodaca, one of the lead supporters of the bill in the Senate, received $21,000 from telecom political action committiees. Only one other Senator came close to that total -- Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger. Most Senators collected well under $10,000.
How did others in leadership positions do?
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger received $19,500, also a bump from the $13,500 he received in 2008 and the $15,250 in 2006. He voted for the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown received $9,000, significantly more than the $2,750 he received in 2006 and 2008 combined. Brown voted in favor of the bill.
Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt, who voted for the bill, received $8,250 from telecommunication donors; Nesbitt had received no contributions from telecommunication donors in earlier elections.
None of this data suggests quid pro quo corruption. We are not saying that these people only supported this bill because they got thousands upon thousands of dollars from those who wanted it passed.
Nonetheless, the Legislature decided to prioritize a bill to revoke local decision-making authority from communities to make them more dependent on a small number of cable and DSL companies that just happened to give tens of thousands of dollars to key lawmakers.
No use crying about it now. The question is where we go from here. Time to hold their feet to the fire -- after the bill passed, CenturyLink claimed "Thanks to the passage of House Bill 129, CenturyLink has gained added confidence to invest in North Carolina and grow our business in the state."
Can anyone attest to CenturyLink increasing investment in North Carolina? Almost certainly not. AT&T has admitted it won't continue the U-Verse rollout it once promised state legislators.
Let's collect the stories of people denied fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet due to laws limiting local authority. Always feel free to share such stories with us.