Rural Broadband: Good for North Carolina
Addressing rural broadband needs is the single biggest thing we can do for the long-term economic development of rural North Carolina. Kids need broadband to get a world-class education. Farmers can use it to increase productivity and to connect with global markets. It would allow people who want to live in rural areas to build businesses or have telecommuting jobs without having to move into urban areas. And maybe Netflix is one of the keys to ending the brain-drain of young people who leave rural areas to get an education and never come back.
When I ask people in rural Orange or Caswell County to name the most pressing need in their community, rural broadband is often the first thing they mention. They understand how important critical it is to improving their lives. If you live in Hillsborough or Chapel Hill, you can take broadband for granted, when your nearby rural neighbors can’t.
The United States lags far behind many other countries in broadband access because of a tangled web of policy and politics. In short, the telecom companies don’t want to spend money on installing expensive broadband infrastructure in rural areas, and politicians haven’t been willing to force the companies to do it.
Nevertheless, I have been working to chip away at our local broadband challenges. Over the last two years, I have helped the Schley Grange (civic organization in Northern Orange County) host two forums on the issue. Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, Orange County’s IT Department, and several of the major telecom providers have come out for these conversations. While we haven’t solved the problem, a few things have been accomplished:
- Orange County has completed a map of broadband availability that has been used to help identify priority areas for infrastructure improvements. The County has also created a $500,000 grant program to address these needs.
- Orange County has also developed a very successful Wi-Fi-To-Go program where local residents can borrow broadband hotspot devices from the library for free.
- Using the map mentioned above, Orange County has worked with CenturyLink to identify areas where the telecom provider can use federal grants funds to upgrade broadband speeds or provide new access across areas of Northern Orange County.
- Several neighborhoods have worked with Spectrum to install new broadband lines when neighbors have agreed to sign multi-year service contracts with the company.
At the State Legislature, I have also been working on bigger picture solutions. During the recent legislative session, I was a co-sponsor of the bipartisan BRIGHT Futures Act. This bill would have made it easier to create private-public partnerships that would build out broadband. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate killed that bill and replaced it with a small grant program. We are waiting for official word on the grant rules to determine how much of Orange and Caswell Counties might qualify.
To really solve our broadband problem, there are three options:
- The government could mandate that telecom providers make broadband available in the entirety of their service area. This seems unlikely given the current distaste for government mandates over corporations. It could become somewhat more likely as wireless broadband technology advances and makes it cheaper to cover rural areas.
- The model of rural electrification could be applied to broadband, using cooperatives like Piedmont Electric to provide broadband along with electricity. Piedmont has been very helpful in addressing local broadband issues, and there are some creative ways that they could be part of the solution. However, the telecom companies are unlikely to give up this market share unless they are forced to.
- Finally, government funding could be used to build infrastructure, which the telecoms could then lease to provide broadband service. The largest downside to this is that government would bear the up-front cost, although it might be returned over time by corporate leasing fees.
The third solution seems the most likely to me. I support and, indeed, Gov. Cooper has discussed, including broadband funding in a possible state infrastructure bond. I have also supported budget appropriations that would have provided direct funding for broadband, but those efforts have been left out of the final budgets of the last few years.
Expanding broadband access for our rural citizens will continue to be one of my top priorities in the General Assembly. I am truly surprised that the Legislature has not done more to address the issue already, because it impacts so much of rural North Carolina. I will try my hardest to get rural residents connected to the 21st century economy as soon as possible. There’s nothing else we could do in these areas that would create more jobs, make it easier for people to get job training, improve education, and ensure a brighter future for our children
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
This post originally ran in the News of Orange County on August 8, 2018