Op Ed: A Mayor’s Perspective on Municipal Broadband

A Mayor’s Perspective on Municipal Broadband
By BJ Murphy, Mayor
City of Kinston, NC

Municipalities across our state continue to face tough budget decisions while feeling the effects of a nationwide recession.  As a mayor in eastern NC, we certainly face many budgetary issues because of this economy.

Many cities and towns throughout the years have seen voids in service or infrastructure, not easily duplicated by the private sector.  Those areas of service tend to be water, sewer, and sometimes electricity.  Many of our neighboring municipalities have gotten into the business of providing broadband service to the community, regardless whether the community is unserved, underserved, or well connected to broadband services.

Municipal broadband, also known as Government Owned Broadband Networks (GONs), is quickly becoming our state’s new enterprise service of choice for cities and towns.  However, unlike many of my elected colleagues in municipal government, I believe we should refrain from the temptation to compete with private communications providers on services and infrastructure that we are not equipped to properly manage.

Kinston, along with 31 other cities, decided over 30 years ago to enter into the municipal electric business.  Although at the time our city leaders thought we were providing a good service to the public, ask almost any electric customer today if they agree.

Government better serves the people by creating the framework for private business to thrive, not by actually owning or competing with private, tax-paying businesses.  Rarely, if ever, will one see two railroad tracks side by side owned by different companies.  Yet, that is what would happen with broadband service in many communities.  In many cases, GONs would essentially use taxpayer dollars to build Internet infrastructure on top of that which has already been put in place by private providers.

Broadband has become almost as essential as the telephone. And yes, there are areas of our state without proper access to broadband.  But that shouldn’t give local government the green light to enter into a business enterprise.

Since we are in the business of water, sewer and electric, we are also subject to wholesale rate increases and bond covenants, which have forced us to raise rates at inopportune times.  But there’s a difference between the government’s ability to reduce waste, because of political correctness or political will, and a private entity’s ability to do the same, because it’s in the best interest of shareholders and customers.

HB 129 would force local governments to adhere to many of the same rules and regulations, including tax structures, as private entities would in regards to GONs.  Our taxpayers deserve lean governments with less intrusion and more choices in the free market.  Let’s just not muddy the playing field by having City Hall compete with taxpaying businesses for broadband customers.  The two should work together to fill voids so that we increase economic prosperity across our state.