Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
The purpose of proposed legislation known as House Bill 431, the FIBER NC Act (Foster Infrastructure for Broadband Expansion and Resources in North Carolina) is to eliminate existing state restrictions on local government investments in broadband infrastructure and develop a system that would allow county and town governments to build out the infrastructure and then lease it to a private provider. North Carolina House of Representative Kevin Corbin serves as a primary sponsor for HB 431.
Since passing its first major hurdle last week where members of the state and local government committee debated for an hour and half before approving the bill in a 13-9 vote, the bill has continued to face opposition and will likely face an uphill battle in the general assembly.
Despite opposition on the state level, locally, Macon County Commissioners are behind Rep. Corbin.
“My understanding is, HB431 including addition 2, will give Macon County and its town governments an opportunity to do two things,” said Commissioner Karl Gillespie. “First, it allows for tax dollars to be used to construct and lease broadband infrastructure and second, it allows for tax dollars to be used for grants to be given to expand current services. I think this bill has the potential to allow our county and city governments to make a substantial impact on the expansion of broadband in Macon County. I appreciate Representative Corbin taking the lead as the primary sponsor on this very important issue and look forward to seeing the outcome of this bill being heard by the Committee on Finance.”
While the bill is being considered by the Committee on Finance, Commission Ronnie Beale noted that the finances of the bill and how it will actually look upon implementation is cause for concern.
“The FIBER Act is a good start,” said Beale. “The concern is how many rural counties can afford to build the infrastructure for broadband access. Broadband is not a luxury but a necessity. It is vital for economic growth and education and many other areas. Another concern I have is if the infrastructure is in place, will there be a provider and at what cost? In Macon County we have seen firsthand that it is all about the money. We have a cell tower that was supposed to supply cell service and possibly broadband to the Nantahala area and still today there is nothing on the tower after five years.”
Beale said that the topography of rural counties, which the FIBER Act is designed to help, is what penalizes citizens and is something the state also needs to address.
“Until the legislature takes steps to tell these providers that we have have been penalized long enough because of our topography, until this happens I am afraid rural counties are going to struggle with broadband access,” said Beale.
Commissioner Gary Shields, who has worked on the local and regional broadband committee to address the very issue Beale presented, voiced his concern as well while emphasizing the importance of legislation like the FIBER Act.
“I think the rural areas of our state, especially here in the mountains, are at a disadvantage due to the cost to ‘providers’ for the ‘mid’ and ‘last’ mile customers,” said Shields. “If the rural areas, like our region, are to move forward into the 21st Century, we have to have alternative funding options like Rep. Kevin Corbin is proposing. Our local economy, education, safety and many other county progressive initiatives are at stake if broadband and cell services are not accessible to all requesters. My biggest question is what formula to use to activate local taxpayer funds for this project. My other concern is how to work with the Southwestern Commission to move this project forward with a regional concept because each county in this region is economically different.”
Corbin, along with his counterparts in the House supporting the measure argue that since there has been such little progress extending broadband access and improving service in the state’s small towns and rural areas from the private sector, rural areas continue to fall behind in terms of health care and education.
“This bill would allow residents in Macon County and the rural counties across the state to provide the assistance needed to expand broadband in remote areas of the state,” said Corbin. “Counties like Macon County who are financially stable have funds available to provide the needed investment in infrastructure without raising taxes or adversely affecting the budget in any way.”
Corbin said that he and his counterparts are diligently working for rural North Carolina, but are unfortunately meeting heavy resistance.
“I am pushing hard for the rural areas of the state, but unfortunately we are having to battle urban interests and big broadband companies,” noted Corbin.
The resistance in Raleigh has been on two fronts. First, large telecommunication companies object to the bill because they view it as having to compete with the public sector and the very governments that are charged with regulating them. Corbin noted that he is also meeting pushback by members of his own party as Republicans have argued that the government should not play a role in providing internet access.
Macon County Commissioners are not the only ones who support the bill, both the NC League of Municipalities as well as the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners have said the bill is a great step in boosting the overall economic development of the state.
The bill, like many other vital state initiatives is currently in limbo in the state’s budget standoff with Governor Roy Cooper. As long as the state’s budget discussions are at a standstill, so are any discussions for new measures such as the FIBER NC Act.