So if we determine that broadband is one of the “basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society” then I would say yes, government has a role in broadband policy. I am clear that the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee did indeed feel that broadband has become a basic infrastructure.
North Carolina and Broadband as Infrastructure
We dedicated a lot of coverage to Time Warner Cable's purchasing legislation to handicap communities from building competitive networks. Kara Millonzi, from the University of North Carolina School of Government, examined the new law and made a potentially interesting point.
Communities have a steep mountain to climb to build a self-financing community network in the state but if a community wanted to treat broadband infrastructure like the roads they manage, the law may not impact them.
As stated above, S.L. 2011-84 imposes some significant limitations on a municipality’s authority to provide cable and Internet services. With some exceptions, the limitations apply to a “city-owned communications service provider.” A city-owned communications service provider is defined as:
- a city
- that provides cable, video programming, telecommunications, broadband, or high-speed Internet access service (collectively, communication services)
- directly, indirectly, or through interlocal agreement or joint agency
- to the public
- for a fee
- using a wired or wireless network (communications network).
This definition is important because the new limitations only apply to municipalities that meet all of its elements. In particular, the Act’s provisions only apply to a municipality that provides the listed services “for a fee.” That means that the requirements do not apply to any municipality that provides the above-listed communication services for free to the public. Many local governments provide free Wi-Fi service in their downtown or other central business areas. (In fact, I am taking advantage of Town of Carrboro’s free Wi-Fi as I draft this post.) If a municipality uses its unrestricted general fund revenue to finance this service, or any other communications services, it is not subject to the new Act’s provisions. (Note that many local governments actually offer this service by taking advantage of excess capacity on their internal broadband networks.)
Though it is an extreme long shot, it would be fascinating to see a community build a network without charging a direct fee to access. It would also be fun to see Time Warner Cable hoisted on their own petard after pushing such self-serving and harmful-to-the-public legislation through an incredibly ignorant legislature.