By Ray Chandler
COLUMBIA — Rep. Bill Sandifer said Thursday that Oconee County’s plans to build a broadband network would not be killed by bills in the legislature if they are passed in their present form.
Sandifer said H 3508 merely upgrades state telecommunications laws to take into account technology developed since the law’s last major change in 2002. The Seneca legislator is a sponsor of the bill in the House.
“When the current laws were written, I don’t think anyone envisioned having broadband provide the scope of service it can now, with projects like that Oconee County has planned,” Sandifer said.
The bills would compel service networks owned and operated by government entities to observe the same operating rules that private service providers have to go by. The government entities providing a service directly to the public are required, for instance, to make the same document filings, observe the same rules on rights-of-way, pay the same franchise, consent, or administrative fees, regulatory fees, occupation taxes, pole attachment fees, and ad valorem taxes.
“It’s all about keeping a level playing field,” Sandifer said.
He was responding to a statement by Oconee County administrator Scott Moulder on Tuesday that the bills, identical ones in the House and the Senate, could effectively kill Oconee County’s project to construct about 245 miles of broadband cable. The project would be funded by a $9.6 million federal stimulus grant awarded last year for extending broadband service into areas now unserved because private providers did not find it financially feasible to extend their infrastructure there.
A similar project, also federally funded, is under way in Orangeburg County.
Moulder said complying with the legislation would be difficult.
Compliance with the intricacies of the bills should they become law would come into play only if Oconee County entered the market as a direct service provider, Sandifer said.
“What Oconee County and Orangeburg County propose is the so-called first mile and middle mile system,” Sandifer said. “And there is nothing in this bill that would keep them from building the system and then leasing it to a private service provider.”
According to officials associated with the Oconee County project, both Northland Cable and Comcast have shown enthusiasm for partnering with Oconee County as retail providers using the system for their services.
AT&T has been asked to be a partner in the project as a retailer, but has rejected the overtures, said Moulder, who credited AT&T with pushing the bills in the legislature.
Sandifer rejected the notion that AT&T was pushing the bill, and said the bills had support of most direct service providers.
“The cable providers’ association has testified in favor of it,” he said.
There is, however, a one possible threat to the plans of both Oconee and Orangeburg counties.
“There is a tremendous sentiment in Columbia not to use any tax money, from any source, to install this kind of system,” Sandifer said.
An amendment was offered Wednesday in discussions of the bill before a subcommittee of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee to ban any government entity from using tax money to build such a system.
“It was narrowly defeated,” said Sandifer, who sits on the subcommittee in addition to heading the full committee.
Sandifer, who voted against the amendment, said he believes it can be defeated if offered before the full committee and hopes it can be defeated if offered when the bill comes to the floor of the House.
“There’s still a long way to go,” he said.
The Oconee County project, which will require about $4.5 million in matching money from the county, is intended to connect about 150 community institutions — such as law-enforcement agencies, emergency services operations and schools — and benefit about 2,400 businesses.
Oconee County information technology director Mike Powell said the planned network would be a skeletal framework that private service providers would use to serve customers where the companies don’t now find it financially feasible to extend service.
About 30 percent of the county now has access to high-speed broadband, according to the county planning department.
The county council voted in September to approve spending $1.8 million to begin the first phase of the project, the laying of 80 miles of broadband cable.