Should communities have a right to decide how residents get online? It sounds like a simple question. It isn't.
The notion of self-determination is fundamental to our self-identify, our politics and the way we construct our communities. And while we all have different interpretations of what "the right to self-determination" means, most of us can agree that it's a bad thing when governments try to take it away.
Yet that's exactly what's happened in North Carolina and what could happen
across the country.
Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a
bill, written by big telecom companies, that took away North Carolina communities' right to create their own broadband networks (Gov. Bev Perdue refused to either sign or veto the bill, so it became law without her signature). Despite its name, the so-called "Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition Bill (H129)" was actually designed to create an unequal playing field by eliminating competition and restricting the cable
market to existing private companies.
The bill's passage means that municipalities in North Carolina can no longer
choose to build their own broadband systems. Communities with poor broadband
choices -- where networks are too slow or don't reach enough people or businesses
-- now have nowhere to turn, and must accept whatever substandard Internet
service AT&T, CenturyLink and Time Warner Cable are willing to give them.
When it comes to broadband in North Carolina, self-determination is a thing of
The anti-competitive North Carolina bill -- like some sort of mutant parasite infecting
the country one state at a time -- is part of a nationwide anti-local broadband trend.
Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and possibly other states are all considering
similar bills (the website Decide Locally
is chronicling these and other pending bills). The foundation for this movement is model
legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council
(ALEC), a corporate-funded group that is behind hundreds of state-level,
pro-corporate bills legislating everything from workers' rights to health care
As Georgia considers its version of this bill, it's imperative that we
recognize what's going on here. Last week, Susan Crawford, the preeminent
lawyer tackling the big tech policy issues of our time, wrote that while local
broadband may be our only hope for globally competitive Internet access,
it's being threatened by big corporations using their sway to keep the status
Right now, state legislatures -- where the [telecom] incumbents wield great power --
are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about
their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and
small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally
competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the
expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable
companies' services greatly favor downloads over uploads.
What's to be done? Grassroots groups, small business owners and individuals
will unite to push back these bills in every state where they appear. But as
Crawford suggests, Congress may need to intervene "by preempting state laws
that erect barriers to the ability of local jurisdictions to provide
communications services to their citizens."
One thing is for sure: In the next weeks and months, we'll once again be
fighting to protect the rights of communities to determine how they'll access
information in the 21st century. North Carolina must serve as a warning sign: We
can't let corporations and their politician friends hijack our right to build better