Verizon Wireless has recently announced its plan to introduce its 5G technology into your home, and its debut will not be coming to your phone, at least not at first. The tech giant plans to introduce the 5G technology as a wireless internet option that uses radio waves to deliver wifi, with package discounts to preexisting Verizon customers. Other companies, including AT&T, are also rolling out a 5G network launch plan this year in limited cities, and Charlotte is on the list. The companies seem very confident that cellular networks will be future of our wireless Internet services, but in a state like North Carolina with a broadband monopoly, will they have to pull the plug?
North Carolina’s battle over broadband has been contentious and constant. As wireless operations became central to productivity, disconnected rural areas and small towns like Wilson, NC began to create their own networks. The cable behemoth, Time Warner, strengthened its grip on Internet service in the state following the General Assembly’s 2011 “Broadband Bill” that statutorily enabled their broadband monopoly. A 2016 fourth circuit decision ended the controversial legal battle, landing a blow to rural communities like Wilson, and a win to the N.C. General Assembly and Time Warner.
Given the legislature’s strong affinity for public utility monopolies, it’s credible that the legislature identified a waning interest in broadband and sought to extend the monopoly market by generalizing the broadband definition to include cellular Internet providers.
Now, rural communities have seen little improvement in connectivity despite misleading maps of coverage and broadband expansion. For the farmer in Ashe County, or the coffee shop in Bladen, the introduction of Verizon’s 5G wirelesses might be their Internet savior. Although Verizon acknowledges that it won’t initially target rural areas due to the need for additional towers, the company boasts of truly covering the map eventually and of providing service to the most remote regions of the country, all thanks to the underutilized high frequency radio waves. This technology is also cheaper than broadband, because instead of laying lines across the state, the company will use the same radio towers that are already providing cellular data to their customers’ phones.
Although the price tag of $70 per month is similar to that of broadband cable service, Verizon asserts that the Internet speeds will be significantly faster and be able to sustain multiple users. And after all, many N.C. citizens don’t have broadband access; any reliable access, despite the cost, will be welcome. It seems plausible that if cell tower density is the main restriction on bringing this service to rural areas, the main place of growth will be those mid range towns like Wilson; towns that are too small for fiber and broadband but that have the capital to be able to finance the construction of adequate cell towers.
Despite the exciting prospect of getting connected, prospective Verizon customers should remain skeptical. The North Carolina General Assembly’s amended definition of Broadband includes any service that is used to provide access to the Internet or to computer processing and information storage at a rate higher than 200 kilobits per second. The question then is whether this expansive definition of broadband could be construed to include services such as Verizon’s 5G wirelesses? And even further, could Verizon or a comparable company partner with municipalities to create local wireless networks, or would this 5G pipedream be Wilson 2.0?
Given the legislature’s strong affinity for public utility monopolies, it’s credible that the legislature identified a waning interest in broadband and sought to extend the monopoly market by generalizing the broadband definition to include cellular Internet providers. For now, the disconnected citizens of North Carolina will wait, and bide their time until Verizon or AT&T introduce their programs.
If Time Warner challenges their operation, or partnership with municipalities, it will redirect the issue to the courts yet again, and possibly trigger the FCC’s attention. And if Time Warner were to lose, or were not to pursue action, the advantages of competition may help spur the long promised expansion of internet into rural North Carolina, as Time Warner and Verizon race to lay lines and build towers to settle the technological frontier. As technology broadens the spectrum of available communications utilities, the statutory interpretation of “Broadband” has this monopoly feeling more like a game of chess.