Published: Jan 22, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 22, 2013 01:10 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Local leaders took the first step last week toward routing ultra high-speed Internet service to every home and business in Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
The regional North Carolina Next Generation Networks project – Gig-U – is part of a national collaboration between 37 universities and the communities that surround them. While the regional partners in Orange, Durham, Wake and Forsyth counties are working together to find service providers, each will sign its own contract for a community network.
Gig-U’s ultra high-speed network would move information and upload data at 1 gigabit per second – more than 100 times what most people have now.
The prospect of closing the digital divide in low-income communities, providing equal access to jobs and education, and accelerating health care and economic opportunities is exciting, local leaders said.
The only thing standing in the way is how to enforce Internet service contracts.
As a Dillon’s Rule state, North Carolina narrowly defines its municipalities’ powers. Telecommunications attorney Cynthia Pols told the Chapel Hill Town Council last year that state laws regulating cable and broadband services have become stricter, and local governments can’t create franchises or put binding requirements on providers.
Pols and Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, said the towns would be on shaky legal ground if they tried to require open access, customer discounts or wiring in certain neighborhoods. The companies know the contracts aren’t enforceable, so the towns should be clear about their goals, Rice said.
“We’re just a little bit worried that everybody, in their excitement to make this happen, doesn’t want to deal with these issues,” she said. ”We just want you to look at it and figure out a way to bring us all a gig.”
Town officials think they can attract providers, but they won’t know for sure what’s possible until the proposals are on the table, Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil said. There are any number of options for how they eventually could proceed with a contract, he said.
Potential incentives include low-cost leases for municipal facilities and 46 miles of mostly unused fiber-optic cable. Chapel Hill and Carrboro installed roughly 144 strands of fiber last year along major roadways as part of a traffic signal technology upgrade. About 8 percent, or 12 lines, could be used as a dedicated ultra high-speed network through some of the most dense local neighborhoods, officials said.
“This has a huge capacity to do some really great things in the future,” Stancil said.
Rice suggested the towns consider establishing a nonprofit group to make sure promises are kept, but UNC project manager Terri Buckner said the town managers were not interested. Several project members did see it as a long-term option, Buckner said.
Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews said they might be willing for a nonprofit to serve lower-income neighborhoods, but it’s important to maintain local control.
“We would not be comfortable in turning over the assets to a single entity, such as an authority or a nonprofit ... because of the differences in values and the differences between one city or another,” he said.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton had another suggestion: Add a clause that voids the contract if objectives aren’t met or the courts say it’s unenforceable.
This project is about creating opportunities, he said.
“The next great wave of innovation can very easily come from people who simply have a great idea, but it has to be a great idea that is combined with access to technology,” Chilton said.