Rep. Corbin takes on his own party to fight for rural broadband expansion
House Bill 431, also known as the FIBER ACT, would allow local governments to build broadband infrastructure and lease it to private Internet providers using taxpayer dollars. While the bill has passed important committees in the House, the bill is receiving major push back from major telecommunication companies as well as members of the Republican Party, despite the bill being sponsored by Republican NC House Rep. Kevin Corbin.
At last week’s Town Board meeting, Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor urged everyone to contact Julia Howard who is one of three House members who chair the House Finance committee. Howard will likely be the tie-breaker vote on whether or not the FIBER NC Act will make it out of committee for a full vote. Taylor said to let her know Highlands is for the act. Her email is Julia.Howard@ncleg.net.
John Szoka, one of the other primary sponsors alongside Corbin for the bill is also a chair. Mitchelll Setzer is the third Chair and is adamantly against the bill. If Howard votes in favor of the finance committee hearing the bill, the legislation will stay alive and move forward. If not, the bill will essentially die and will no longer have a chance of becoming reality this session.
The legislation is supported by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the League of Municipalities and would allow local governments to install and maintain broadband lines and lease the infrastructure to private companies, which would provide high-speed Internet to businesses and homes. Governments couldn’t offer the service themselves. The goal is to help connect people who don’t currently have broadband by making it easier for companies to expand their services.
The Town of Highlands is already working on offering residents Internet and were grandfathered in due to a loop hole in the law a few years ago. If the new legislation passes, Highlands would be able to better partner with Macon County or even Franklin to expand the infrastructure and better serve residents throughout Macon County.
“I am very pleased that Representative Corbin is helping to bring the issue to the forefront as we as a county are currently stymied with our hands tied with trying to help improve the situation,” said Macon County Commission Chair and Highlands Representative Jim Tate. “The problem is not going to be solved until the state can come to agreement that access to broadband is truly more important than ensuring that the larger companies are making a profit. In my opinion, if approved, this will be a fantastic step forward in trying to solve the problem.”
In the eastern part of the state, large cable and telecommunications companies object to having to compete with the public sector, in some cases the governments that regulate them. However, the FIBER NC ACT is specifically designed to help rural areas such as Macon County that don’t have broadband companies knocking down the door to service the areas.
In addition to telecommunication companies, some conservative Republicans are also against the change asserting that government should have no role in providing Internet access.
During the House committee meeting, committee Vice Chair Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, said that, unlike police and fire protection, providing Internet service goes beyond the proper role of government. He said the bill would eventually lead to local governments providing their own service or getting into financial trouble.
Rep. Kevin Corbin, who serves as the primary sponsor for the bill disagrees.
“It would allow Macon County and other rural counties in North Carolina to assist in the expansion of broadband,” said Corbin. “A county like Macon that is financially stable could invest in this infrastructure without raising taxes or adversely affecting the budget in any way. I am pushing hard for rural North Carolina. Unfortunately, we are having to battle urban interests and the big broad band companies. Josh [Dobson, another bill sponsor] and I are trying to think outside the box here. Anytime you do that you get the objection that we’ve ‘never done it this way before’ Unfortunately, we are having to battle with the big broadband companies as well as some within our own political party. We continue to push for rural North Carolina.”
Corbin is joined by Josh Dobson R-Avery and John Szoka R-Cumberland in sponsoring the bill.
Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale supports Corbin’s efforts but believes it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
“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, education and many other areas. Another concern is if the infrastructure is in place will there be a provider and at what cost? In Macon County we have seen first-hand that is all about the money. We have a cell tower that was supposed to supply cell service and possibly broadband to the Nantahala area; still today there is nothing on the tower after five years. Until the legislators take steps to tell these providers that we have been penalized long enough because of our topography, until this happens, I am afraid rural counties are going to continue to struggle with broadband access.”
As of press time, the chairs of the finance committee were still debating whether they will take up the legislation.
By Brittney Lofthouse