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Killing faster Internet service: Time Warner has Raleigh do its dirty work 

Salisbury, N.C. is just a 40-mile trip up I-85 from Charlotte. It's home to around 30,000 people and, along with the city of Wilson in eastern N.C., it boasts the fastest Internet speeds in the state. Salisbury and its citizens own the Fibrant fiber optic network, while Wilsonians own the Greenlight Community Network; both of them offer subscribers up to 100Mbps (megabits per second) service for both uploads and downloads.

Compare that to Time Warner Cable's Internet offerings in Salisbury, Wilson and Charlotte, which max out at 15Mbps. TWC's critics say the telecom giant's actual Internet speed is closer to 6Mbps, but for the sake of argument, let's go with the company's claim of 15Mbps.

I don't know about you, but if I had a chance to switch to a locally owned Internet service provider offering broadband at more than six times the speed I have now, and at a decent price, I would drop TWC in a heartbeat. For now, however, Charlotte doesn't have anything like Fibrant or Greenlight, and if Time Warner and its friends in the General Assembly in Raleigh have their way, we probably never will.

Two weeks ago, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that is designed to curtail local governments' ability to create their own broadband networks; critics of the bill say it would make cities' task nearly impossible.

As if to emphasize how much the law is a big fat gift to telecommunications industry donors in the House, the bill's primary sponsor, Marilyn Avila (R-Wake) was even accompanied to House meetings on the bill by Time Warner lawyers and lobbyists. Avila said the bill would protect businesses from "predatory" local governments. Imagine the horror: "predatory" local governments, picking on a poor little mom-and-pop business like Time Warner and AT&T. The truth is that there are a number of municipal ISPs giving customers broadband speeds that eat Time Warner's lunch, and that's what the telecom giant doesn't like.

In other words, the bill — which has been pushed by TWC for four years — is intended to boost Time Warner's bottom line at the expense of N.C. citizens who may want access to faster broadband service. The proof of how much the public wants faster service is in the bill sponsors' decision to exempt existing municipal systems.

The argument put forth by TWC and its lawmaking friends for the bill (given the Orwellian name of "Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition Act") is that cities should not be able to compete against "private enterprise" — even if the city's network is a much better deal. "Cities have unfair advantages," Melissa Buscher, Time Warner Cable's VP of communications for the Carolinas, told the Salisbury Post. "If municipalities want to get into a business already offered by the private sector, we welcome the competition, but we want to level the playing field." If you translate "level the playing field" to mean "squelch competition that offers faster service," Busher's statement is true.

So now, it's not bad enough that much of the industrialized world has much faster, and cheaper, broadband service than the U.S. In N.C., the business monopoly that controls our broadband service has now successfully greased the wheels in the House to be sure it can keep delivering mediocre service for a jacked-up price — while practically dictating the precise contents of the law that guarantees its profits.

All Republicans in the House voted for the bill, as well as 15 Democrats, including Rep. Becky Carney (D-Meck.), who co-sponsored the bill. Frankly, we thought Carney knew better. The only Mecklenburg reps to vote against the bill were Tricia Cotham, Kelly Alexander, and Martha Alexander. The bill is now in the Senate where it's already out of committee and should come up for a vote in the near future.

Besides obviously running counter to federal efforts to expand access to broadband, the bill also shows the fundamental weakness of the standard conservative spiel about The Government vs. Businesses. One argument is that government can never do anything as well as private enterprise; the other is that businesses can't compete with government. Well, which is it? Is government incompetent, or is it so great that no businesses can compete with it? It cannot be both.

Broadband cable has become a fundamental, essential civic service. Big telecoms are essentially saying that even though they don't relish going into smaller towns and rural areas because they can't squeeze as much money out of those places as they can in cities, they still don't want to have to compete against local municipal systems, once they deign to move into the less-profitable areas. If I were TWC, I wouldn't want to compete against a taxpayer-owned company that offers faster service at a lower price, either. But if TWC is unable, or unwilling, to compete, then frankly, too bad for TWC.

As it stands now in most N.C. cities, the big telecoms like Time Warner and AT&T already have a monopoly on broadband service. For them to engage in a war against potential competitors that offer a better service is, to put it mildly, not the way "of the people, by the people, and for the people" is supposed to work. Let your state senators know that you're opposed to such a blatant money-grab by TWC and friends. They're doing it at your expense.

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