by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
House Bill 1086 would define high-speed internet service as a public enterprise for a handful of counties: Avery, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, and Swain.
Providing access to high-speed internet service in mountain counties is a challenge, owing to the terrain as well as low population densities. There are many different ways of addressing it — wireless services (whether point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, or cellular), DSL, cable modem, fiber-optic cable, or satellite — but each has limitations, some more than others.
Some ways government can assist without making it a public enterprise (like water, sewer, and trash collection) would be by amending tower ordinances to help broadband companies; allow them to install equipment atop government buildings, water towers, etc.; relax permitting; promote business and nonprofit groups’ pitch-in efforts to provide for, assist in developing, and facilitate infrastructure improvements for broadband (as well as share wireless broadband access); and try not to raise regulatory costs or upset the balance of competition as different providers compete with different ways to solve the problem to win them customers.
Nevertheless, the experience in several municipalities — most recently punctuated by Salisbury’s problems — should caution against government getting intertwined with the industry itself.
The unique challenges of providing high-speed internet in areas of low population density and difficult terrain would seem to make government intervention more feasible. The irony is, they are what actually make government intervention less feasible. An open market with different private providers competing and seeking different solutions is what suits this problem better.
Government involvement typically favors one provider, makes it marginally more expensive for others to compete, makes it less likely citizens will be able to access newfound innovations, and — as Salisbury and others had to learn for themselves despite being warned — leads to costly spillover effects because governments are far less responsive to price signals than private enterprise.
Making high-speed internet service as a public enterprise just for a few counties, however, would not only open them to possibly very costly government choices. It would also leave open the possibility of lawmakers revisiting it to add more counties, if not all of them.