For Patrice Powell, going to the library every day to look for a job on the Internet gives her a sense of purpose. If she had Internet at home and didn’t have to get up, get dressed and go out, she might get lazy about it, she says.
But for the children living in her low-income community, Airport Gardens, having Internet access could mean a lot when it comes to their schoolwork.
Airport Gardens is only one of a number of low-income communities that lack Internet access, and the town wants to fix that.
The goal is lofty: provide ultra-high speed Internet for free or at a highly reduced price to low-income communities in Chapel Hill/Carrboro. But the question remains as to whether the towns have the legal right to do so.
Both Chapel Hill and Carrboro moved forward with their plans last week to seek proposals from telecom vendors who would use the towns’ own dark fiber to create and operate a gigabyte-speed Internet network for the area.
But some are hesitant to believe that the towns have the legal standing to enforce a contract with a telecom vendor, especially one that calls on them to provide low-cost or free Internet to underserved areas.
Under state law, municipalities can’t directly provide communication services.
Cynthia Pols, a legal consultant for the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, says the contract could be seen as trying to circumvent state law and ultimately wouldn’t be enforceable. In that case, the towns would have forfeited their own investment in dark fiber.
“You could have a vendor that says, ‘Thanks municipality, you’ve given me very low-cost fiber lines here and you can’t enforce any of these requirements, so we’re just going to wire where we want t wire and charge what we want to charge,” Pols says.
But Terri Buckner, project coordinator for N.C. Next Generation Networks (NCNGN) at UNC, says the contract is something they’ll worry about once they get proposals from vendors.
“We may not even get to the contract phase,” Buckner says. “We don't know that we will get proposals that meet our needs, so when we get to the contract phase, then we will deal with enforcement issue.”
BACKSTORY Under NCNGN, a coalition of area municipalities and universities would have access to ultra-high speed Internet to fuel the growth of businesses and enhance educational opportunities. TW