They were exhausted, but this past Saturday at 4:55 a.m., a majority of the N.C. House of Representatives intrepidly stood up to big telecom companies in a critical battle over Internet access for the state's small towns and rural counties.
That's when the House rejected a Senate-passed moratorium on municipal broadband systems, a major victory for advocates of Internet access. "This is an enormous win for the every-day North Carolinian who remains significantly underserved by our state's largest broadband providers," said municipal broadband consultant Catharine Rice of Action Audits.
Citizens of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill can easily obtain high-speed Internet access, but thousands of residents as close to the center of the Triangle as Chatham and Caswell counties still must rely on slow, unreliable dial-up service. Sen. David Hoyle's (D-Gaston) broadband bill, S-1209, would have kept it that way.
Hoyle, a recipient of large campaign contributions from the big telecom companies and their lobbyists, led overwhelming passage in the Senate of this bill that would have imposed a 14-month moratorium on municipal broadband projects while a commission studied the matter.
Telecom giants Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Embarq lobbied for the bill's passage. The N.C. League of Municipalities led the efforts to fight the moratorium provision, claiming that the telecom companies have failed to serve rural communities because they cannot make a profit there. Five North Carolina towns already have their own municipal networks, and counties like Caswell and Chatham want their own, too.
The drama in the House began in early June when Ways and Means Chair Bill Faison (D-Orange, Caswell) sought to stall S-1209. Hoyle struck back by hijacking an unrelated bill in the Senate and tacking on his anti-municipal provisions. Hoyle's tactics prompted House Speaker Joe Hackney (D-Orange, Chatham, Moore) to send the amended bill to the Rules Committee where, Hackney said, "I send bills to park them."
Then the House killed Sen. Hoyle's bill when it voted to permit a study of municipal broadband service without forcing a moratorium on towns and counties.
Kelli Kukura, director of government affairs at the North Carolina League of Municipalities, says "it is important to recognize" the significance of the amendment since it permits but does not mandate the broadband study.
Senate proponents of the municipal broadband moratorium tried one more late-night maneuver as Sen. Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg) rebuilt a gutted kidney awareness bill to revive Hoyle's original anti-municipal provisions. This last ditch effort was not appreciated by the House, which voted it down, 91-6.
Kukura applauded the House's impressive show of solidarity in the wee hours of July 10. "Any legislation that allows our cities and towns to continue planning and serving their citizens, local businesses and future employers who need broadband is great legislation," she said.