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Access to broadband fundamental right for all in NC

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By Bunny Sanders
Guest Columnist

Sunday, February 10, 2019

There is a reason why most rural communities in North Carolina do not have broadband speeds of  25 megabits per second, even after the state has spent more than $500 million on infrastructure over the last 10 years.

According to internet service providers, or ISPs, it is simply not profitable to serve what is called “the last mile” where there are sparse populations.

Ironically, 80 of 100 counties in North Carolina are rural counties where there are sparsely populated communities. Of the 80 rural counties, 40 are Tier 1 counties, the most economically distressed in the state.

Modern broadband infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for economic development, education and telehealth. But it is also a fundamental right of all citizens of North Carolina, regardless of zip code. Rural communities cannot be sustainable without policy and funding decisions that reflect the reality that commerce runs on the internet. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the economies in North Carolina’s Tier I counties will change without broadband.

The cost to North Carolina for investment in true broadband infrastructure is far less than what it will cost this state when rural communities fail. Our current policies are failing our communities and our children, and the effects will be felt for decades.

What can we do about it? Here are some things to consider:

First, we need to recognize that ISPs cannot make a business case for providing broadband to sparsely populated rural communities. They can’t because of the cost of the infrastructure necessary to provide broadband at speeds of more than 10 Mbps. This is the fastest speed possible with century-old copper telephone wires currently in use.

Secondly, the state of North Carolina should change legislation, which currently prohibits electric cooperatives from providing internet, cable or telephone service, so they can apply for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide these services. These co-ops would be willing to provide broadband speeds to rural communities in North Carolina. Electric co-ops in other states are building fiber to home networks that offer speeds well in excess of 25 Mbps for their electric customers. Often, they utilize the $5 billion in USDA funding set aside every year for rural broadband that the state of North Carolina does not allow electric co-ops here to pursue.

Thirdly, we need to recognize that legislators, by their actions, perpetuate continued lack of broadband to rural communities. Senate Bill 99 is an example. This bill will award $10 million to ISPs to offer internet service at speeds of only 10 Mbps. This is not broadband speed, which is what most ISPs currently provide even as they advertise speeds of 25 Mbps to underserved and unserved areas. Further, SB 99 precludes any challenge of the ISPs’ advertised versus actual speeds as a means of documenting use of the $10 million in taxpayers’ money.

We also need to recognize that the state depends on ISPs to report access to broadband. The ISPs, however, report only their advertised speeds to the Federal Communications Commission. The last state report indicates that 93 percent of North Carolina has access to broadband — internet with speeds of 25 Mbps. This is a major misstatement of fact. The state has never had more than one independent study that featured maps down to the block group, which is the “real last mile.” This study was conducted by Crystal Jennings, then chief technology officer at the NC Windows on the World Technology Center in Roper in 2009.

In order to make a fact-based decision for funding broadband in North Carolina, legislators need the following: an independent baseline study of internet access; engineering studies to determine where existing infrastructure is located and needed; a strategic plan for deploying broadband to rural communities; and an estimated cost.

Finally, you can help your legislator to understand that your vote is more valuable than the most generous lobby.

Estelle “Bunny” Sanders is a former mayor of Roper, North Carolina.

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