If passed, state legislation might prevent Chapel Hill from providing residents with town-sponsored internet services.
House Bill 129, otherwise known as the broadband or level-playing field bill, was filed Feb. 16 and passed through the House of Representatives on Monday.
If passed in the Senate, the bill would make it difficult for towns to provide and charge residents for broadband services.
The bill states that it is necessary to limit town-provided broadband services so the government is not intervening in the private sector. It would protect jobs and promote investment, the bill states.
“If we had a vision for broadband in Chapel Hill, this kills it,” said Town Council member Ed Harrison. Chapel Hill is installing a fiber-optic network that could be used for high-speed internet.
Despite opposition from several cities and towns, Harrison said there is a good chance the bill will also pass in the Senate.
“We don’t seem to have any influence lobbying against it,” he said. “We aren’t getting any headway.”
In a March 14 resolution, the Town Council called on members of the N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Bev Perdue to oppose the bill, saying it constrains necessary communication services that could be provided to underserved rural areas.
If passed, the bill would also forbid cities and towns from using federal grant funds to operate local broadband services.
The primary sponsors of the bill could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said large private internet companies tend to mainly serve more affluent areas.
“They’re not as concerned with bridging the communication divide as they are with finding paying utility customers,” Kleinschmidt said.
The town is trimming trees to make way for fiber optic cable, primarily so it can be used for traffic signals. The town plans for the cable to eventually connect town buildings and the wider community with high speed Internet.
But with the possibility of the broadband bill passing, Kleinschmidt said the cable might not be used to its full potential.
“The worst case scenario is that the fiber optic cable will only be used for our traffic signal and its full use will never be tapped,” he said. “The best case scenario is also using it for municipal services too, but even that could be at risk.”
The council has also considered working out a connection between area public schools and UNC, but Kleinschmidt said he wasn’t certain the bill would allow it.
Council member Laurin Easthom said the council and schools talked about a town-wide broadband system years ago, but she is unsure if the effort will continue.
“We’re just going to have to see what happens next,” she said.
Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC’s Program on Public Life, said these conflicts are a regular part of democracy. He said frequently private enterprise is not sufficient, and government needs to step in.
“The overarching question for legislatures is, ‘How do we arrange our private and public interests to extend broadband across the state so that it is affordable and acceptable?’”
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