We think of the past as a simpler time, and indeed it was--specifically 2008, when private companies offered cable service and Internet access, cities contented themselves with matters like zoning issues and sign ordinances, and never did those twains meet. Well, they have now. The city of Wilson borrowed $28 million to build its own fiber-optic communications system, other cities have similar plans in development, and the General Assembly has been called upon to sort out the rules. Trouble is, this is one of those bizarre moments when everyone on all sides of the issue is wrong. Or, if you have a sunnier view of the world than I do, everyone is right.
It's helpful to recall that our modern era isn't really all that far removed from the time when electricity and indoor plumbing were absent from great chunks of the country. In fact, whenever I feel the need to establish my bona fides as a common man, I point out that childhood weekend visits to my grandparents' home in rural Georgia involved trips to the outhouse and baths in a galvanized metal tub on the back porch. It's odd, then, that just a generation or two later the absence of a top-speed Internet connection is considered a societal failing on par with that level of impoverishment--a void so unacceptable that government feels compelled to fill it. (Finland, in fact, has declared broadband access a legal right.) Odder still is the notion that Wilson County, where the state's first municipally owned cable TV/phone/broadband Internet system became operational two years ago, has a poverty rate 50% higher than the rest of North Carolina. Those two facts, when joined in the same sentence, have a certain Marie Antoinette-ish quality to them: What to do when so many find it hard to meet basic needs? Why, make sure they can download video files quickly!
But the chronic urge among politicians to spend money and time on lesser problems as larger ones go unresolved is a topic for another day. Instead, let's do this debate-style. I'll pose the question--should local governments compete with private suppliers of cable TV/Internet access?--and argue both sides myself. (I'm a reflexive contrarian, so taking any opposite position, even simultaneously, is second nature.)
Yes, absolutely. Aside from anarchists--and affected property owners--no one objects when government undertakes big projects that benefit all: roads, dams, water and sewer, etc. A fiber-optic system is just...