Sunday, July 1, 2012

You stay classy South Carolina

South Carolina's legislative bodies have, in their wisdom, passed a bill which severely limits (pretty much eliminates) the ability of municipalities to launch there own broadband networks. Ars Technica reports this effort was largely a result of lobbying from AT&T using an ALEC drafted proposal.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention ALEC is a "bi-partisan" group largely dominated by conservative interests. They gained prominence in the news cycle when it came to light that they were supporting some very unsavory legislation. Eventually ALEC came close to disbanding as major corperate sponsors pulled their backing. I think we can take this as evidence, that like the John Birch Society, we'll be dealing with ALEC for a long time to come. Other states beware, now that this has passed in SC the other conservative controlled legislatures may be passing similar bills.

A large portion of South Carolina is called the 'Corridor of Shame'. It's a largely rural stretch of the state where underfunded and supported schools and services have produced a startling amount of illiteracy in some counties, including adult illiteracy rates are as high as 29%.. A digital divide is another systemic problem that faces South Carolina. This digital divide is not just another barrier to solving for adult literacy and providing education, but also to the very development of the state itself.

Admittedly providing digital services to these rural areas will be expensive for private industry, especially considering that many people in these areas won't be able to subscribe to these services. In many ways, broadband to rural areas faces the same problems infrastructure challenges providing electricity and sewer access posed to these same communities less then fifty years ago. Even into the 1960s areas in counties within the corridors of shame were lacked access to basic utilities like electricity and especially telephone service. Federal legislation was created to solve the problems posed by a lack of infrastructure (in 1936, and expanding the legislative mandate to telephone service in 1949).

This legislation had effects beyond just improving peoples lives. From 1933 to 1967 income rose in the area covered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, from 49 to 69 percent of the national average. Broadband internet can have the same impact. According to a report from PPIC a public policy think tank, there is a positive correlation between broadband access and economic growth. By providing broadband services, you generate commerce and taxes, and provide the state with a workforce that can attract businesses. All things South Carolina desperately needs.

The same report notes that $7.2 billion was designate by the federal government for the expansion of broad band to undeserved areas. Areas which are defined as areas having access then of less then 200kbs. The South Carolina bill prohibits public networks of more then 190kbs. You can see the problem.

The effect of the South Carolina Law is that when underserved by the private sector theirs no recourse for someone in an undeserved area has not alternitive. As Ares reports the law contains more grandfather clause, so communities using federal grant money to serve citizens now have to divest themselves of the network. Jim Baller, one of the nation's leading experts on public broadband points to a broad effort to delay and destroy public broadband efforts.

While at a county level South Carolina does OK, when you break it down at a census track level 60% of South Carolinians live in areas where less than 60% or households have broad band access. With a 3 out of 5 house holds state wide having broadband access above 200kbs, and less than 1 out of five meeting the national target speed of 3mbs according to tracking released late last year by the FCC. South Carolina has a lot of work to do especially in rural communities. Which is why this law doesn't make since from a policy point of view.

In 2007 the state auctioned off a huge portion of it's wireless spectrum, in South Carolina, the state, not institutions held educational broadcast licenses and the associated band width. Two companies bought the rights to 90% the states educational band. Two years later the local alternative weekly launched an investigative report and found that little had been done to develop those licenses, while the two companies used their monopoly to freeze out local competition. There's a large technical challenge to establish the infrastructure to provide broadband access to residents of a state. Having sold the easiest way to connect the state to the web, law makers have now put another nail in the coffin of this states economic development.  This law represents another barrier to citizens getting the services they need, and cuts off what was ending the legacy of the "corridor of shame."

Admittedly I am a bit of a big government guy. But I prefer to have market mechanisms provide services, including utilities. The problem with this bill isn't that it privatizes a public good, its that it prevents governments, municipal, local small governments, from being able to address the failures of the market, which are dire in rural South Carolina. The state legislature again shows its allegiance is more towards those in power then to fixing the considerable problems facing the state. I think they would be wise to remember something my mother told me: You don't have to be part of the solution, but don't be part of the problem.

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