Georgia considers bill to curb municipal broadband

Some Georgia lawmakers are taking a page from North Carolina’s playbook in order to limit municipal broadband projects in the state. Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers is sponsoring a bill that he says is designed to keep government from unfairly competing against incumbent broadband providers. The bill makes the same kinds of arguments included by the telecommunications lobby in a previous measure that passed in North Carolina, effectively limiting municipal broadband growth in that state.

Under the terms of the bill, municipalities would be prevented from paying for communication networks with tax or government revenue or from subsidizing subscription prices. The bill also requires that local governments hold public hearings and a special election before becoming a broadband provider.

The special election requirement goes a step further than the North Carolina legislation of the same flavor. Three cities in Georgia, Tifton, Marietta, and Acworth currently provide publically funded broadband networks but, Rogers calls them unsuccessful and the government an unfair competitor to private business. He claims that the bill would “level the playing field.”

“The private sector is handling this exceptionally well,” Rogers said in an Associated Press account. “What they don’t need is for a governmental entity to come in and compete with them where these types of services already exist. We’re not outlawing a local government entity from doing this, but if they’re going to compete, they can play by the same rules and ask the voters if it’s okay before they go out and spend all these dollars.”

Rogers claims are dubious at best. According to the National Broadband Map, Georgia ranks 20th in the nation for broadband access. According to the forward of a report by Rich Calhoun, Program Director of the Georgia Technology Initiative, “As I traveled through the state to talk with leaders in municipalities, counties and community anchor institutions, I found that many places throughout Georgia indicated that they did not have access to affordable or sufficient broadband services. Telecommunications firms who have made significant investments in Georgia indicated that in some areas of the state the return on investment would not qualify for further investment at the present time.”

According to data in a previous CivSource piece on the state of municipal broadband, “just over 50 cities in the US have their own fiber networks and fewer than 100 have cable networks.”

However, incumbent broadband providers have a significant interest in ensuring that they are the only players in the broadband market, despite open unwillingness to build the infrastructure needed to foster a broadband economy in the United States. The requirements of the bill most notably – special elections – will erect high cost barriers to creating municipal broadband networks even for more affluent cities in the state. Ensuring that a market with little to no activity will go uninterrupted by communities attempting to provide needed infrastructure for themselves.

Rogers claims that these requirements only make governments “play by the same rules,” as the private sector. Although we are left to question when was the last time a private sector provider held a special election before it began an initiative or was barred from using or raising capital to start a project.

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