by Justin Vick
MOORESVILLE – State lawmakers are considering a bill that would limit MI-Connection’s service area, a move that concerns local leaders committed to the town-owned broadband company’s success.
The N.C. House of Representatives passed House Bill 129, dubbed “Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition,” on Monday, March 28, which places additional requirements on municipal broadband companies.
While the bill exempts MI-Connection and existing broadband companies in Morganton, Salisbury and Wilson from those requirements, it restricts their operations to “service area boundaries.”
The bill states Davidson and Mooresville’s shared boundary would consist of “the service area designated in the initial notice of franchise filed with the Secretary of State, and the contiguous area where the agency is offering service as of the effective date of this act connecting the cities of Davidson and Mooresville with areas set forth in the initial areas of franchise.”
Bill Scoggin, who has lobbied legislators on MI-Connection’s behalf, said that boundary covers Davidson, Huntersville and Iredell County up to Interstate 40. He’s not so sure it covers Cornelius and unincorporated areas in Mecklenburg County, north of Interstate 485.
And that concerns MI-Connection.
While MI-Connection maintains the position that it doesn’t want to be confined by a service area, Scoggin said if it must abide by one, then the boundary needs to be accurate.
“The language is still not completely clear,” Scoggin told the MI-Connection Board of Directors by phone Friday, March 25. “I don’t think it’s representative of what we’re doing now or what we’d like to do.”
On Friday, March 25,Scoggin told the board he would push for an amendment to be made on the House floor that would be more favorable to MI-Connection, but that didn’t come to pass.
The N.C. House passed the bill Monday, March 28, by an 81-37 vote. Among those voting against the bill were Mecklenburg representatives Kelly Alexander Jr. and Martha Alexander. Other representatives from Iredell and Mecklenburg voted in favor of the bill.
The N.C. Senate passed the bill on first reading Tuesday, March 29, and moved it to its commerce committee for review. The commerce committee convenes Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Nick Miller, who serves as MI-Connection’s lawyer, said the broadband company might get around the service-area boundary by filing another service map with the state that includes Cornelius and unincorporated parts of Mecklenburg County.
“It’s really a decision after next week after Bill (Scoggin) sees where we are with the committee staff,” Miller told the board on Friday.
Mooresville commissioners had drafted a resolution urging the N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Beverly Perdue to oppose the legislation but put off the vote on March 21 upon learning that lawmakers were leaning toward exempting existing broadband companies from additional requirements.
The resolution countered that the House and Senate bills do not provide a level playing field to municipalities, but “greatly hinder local governments from providing needed communications services, including public safety networks, and especially advanced high-speed broadband services, in unserved and underserved areas.”
Worried the bill would shut down existing fiber and wireless broadband systems, those who drafted the resolution wrote the bills would “stifle job development and investment in our communities, undermine the ability of communities in our state to compete in the global economy and respond to local needs and interfere with the effective and responsive operation of local governments.”
Company picks up customers, still behind
MI-Connection General Manager Alan Hall presented customer data for February that shows subscriptions have rebounded slightly from January but not enough to offset losses sustained since the fiscal year began July 1.
MI-Connection reported 24,240 cable TV, internet and phone subscriptions for February, which was 30 more than January but 227 fewer than the company began the fiscal year with.
Last summer, MI-Connection unveiled a new marketing plan called “Connect My (Blank),” enabling new subscribers to earn up to $75 for an organization of their choice.
Hall introduced the campaign to elected officials in Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville in hopes they would help increase buy-in among their constituents. The message: Recruit 5,000 more residents to subscribe to “triple play” bundled packages consisting of cable TV, Internet and phone service.
Hall told leaders that if the company could grow by 750 subscriptions a month for the next year, the company would generate enough of a margin to cover operating costs and debt service.
Last month, Hall attributed declines from July to January to losing accounts for two large apartment complexes – Marina Shores in Cornelius and Talbert Woods in Mooresville – to competitors.
While Internet and phone subscriptions increased from January to February, cable TV subscriptions fell by 36 since January and 504 since July to a total of 12,629 subscriptions.
In recent months, MI-Connection launched a marketing campaign geared toward satellite providers. The company purchased the domain name WeBuyUglyDishes.com and offers up to $240 toward a contract buyout. MI-Connection has also offered a two-year price guarantee in light of recent rate increases.
MI-Connection customer data this fiscal year
.......................July 1 January February
Basic 13,133 12,665 12,629
Data 9,353 9,255 9,287
Voice 1,981 2,290 2,324
Total 24,467 24,210 24,240
Customers 15,181 14,660 14,643