Slower Speeds, Less Access: The Public Agency Response to Rural Broadband

Public entities like the Federal Communications Commission and state legislatures are supposed to look after the common good. Instead, their policies are making things tougher for small towns and rural areas anxious to improve their connectivity.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Yesterday Jonathan Chambers wrote about the FCC’s limitations on the Connect America Fund, which is supposed to provide publicly managed support of better broadband in rural areas. Today, broadband consultant Craig Settles writes about other public policies that he says hold back rural America’s digital connectivity.


Sondra Sage fell off a six-foot metal ladder at her home. With her legs entangled with the broken metal, Sage had to crawl in search of help until her spouse finally found her. She didn’t arrive at a Santa Fe, New Mexico, emergency room until almost two hours after she fell.

Why didn’t Sage call an ambulance?

She doesn’t have cell service at her Pojoaque Valley home, and she hasn’t been able to get a landline for two years, according to a story in the Sante Fe Reporter.

At the start of 2018, this is the state of voice and internet communications in many communities in rural America. How did things get so bad? More importantly, what can rural residents and businesses do to solve this problem?

Only 62 percent of rural Americans have broadband installed in their homes, according to the think tank New America, and those who do often pay exorbitant prices for sluggish speeds. There are similar statistics from low-income urban communities. In rural and urban communities, “Over 70% of small businesses, which include small service firms, retail shops, and healthcare clinics, have less than 4 Mbps upload speed,” according to data collected by Strategic Network Group.


Lowering the Bar

The FCC will vote Friday, February 2, whether to lower broadband service standards so that mobile smartphone cellular service is treated as the same as a home landline connection. The FCC majority also wants to officially lower what counts as high-speed broadband from 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads.

Jared Brown, principal consultant of Fiberrun, says in his blog that 10/1 is “enough to surf Facebook, but that’s about it. This low-level definition translates into ‘Don’t work from home, don’t videoconference, don’t do backups and don’t do Netflix.’ Don’t even dream about telemedicine or e-learning.” Customers will get even less bandwidth than 10/1 during prime internet usage time (4-10 p.m.) when demand for data is at its highest.

There is yet another force that has been working quietly against communities’ communication interests for several years.


The Last of “Carrier-of-Last-Resort”?

Many states passed “carrier of last resort” (COLR) laws years ago to ensure rural communities got telephone services via wireline connections, which by the default included possible internet access. Deals struck with large telecom and cable companies said, in effect, “We’ll give you money and favorable treatment if you agree to provide service to customers even in sparsely populated areas.” Companies got access to big and lucrative markets in return for saying they would also serve harder-to-reach communities.  It was accountability for communities’ tax dollars.

Since then, however, incumbents quietly lobbied state legislatures to pass bills to free them of these obligations, or at least let them switch copper landlines for cellular wireless. Rural areas are especially vulnerable when wiring wears out or infrastructure is destroyed in natural disasters such as hurricane Harvey in Texas. They are also vulnerable when the FCC says cellular service is equivalent to landline connections.

“Texas made it ridiculously easy for phone companies to get rid of their COLR (carrier of last resort) obligations,” wrote Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, in a post in “Wetmachine.” “Phone companies in Texas do not have a state-based legal obligation to repair or replace service once it goes down.” Texas rural residents may never see their phone and broadband service return. Similar threats exist in other states.


One change in communications policy that can affect rural residents is state decisions on “carrier of last resort” laws. Some states are weakening these laws, which require a telecommunications company to serve nearly everyone, not just customers who are easy to reach. (Map: Sherry Lichtenberg, Ph.D., National Regulatory Research Institute)


The Bright Spot – Community Broadband

There are over 400 public-owned networks run by local governments or public utilities. Dozens of municipalities are moving forward. Over 80 electric cooperatives are running or building networks as well as an unknown number of public-private partnerships. A legion of small private providers such as wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and rural telecom co-ops need to join ranks with the public sector.

“When communities are willing to commit resources to support … their residents’ constitutional rights and interests, and oppose over-reaching by industry, we can prevail,” Michael J. Watza, head of the governmental litigation and affairs practice at the Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook law firm, wrote in an email. “In many instances we are simply right. We just need to stand and fight.”


State Prohibitions Eclipse the Bright Spot

Twenty-one states have either specific laws or requirements governing cities’ and counties’ ability to build their own broadband networks.  (This report and this addendum summarize these mandates.) Determining if your state has or had COLR requirements may require digging. Fight like the devil to keep them if you have them. If you’ve lost your COLR laws, try to get them reinstated.

Rather than wait for American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the Koch brothers to try to pass state laws prohibiting municipal networks, pressure state legislators to take positive action on publicly owned networks. Georgia state legislators wrote proactive broadband policy that stated publicly owned broadband is a viable option. State House member Don Parsons stated, “In my opinion, if cities want to build these networks they should. There are several examples of success. I trust that the voters will take the right direction and if there are problems the voters will straighten them out.”

Hawaii state legislator Kaniela Ing intends to introduce a bill in 2018 to require the state to explore creating and supporting locally owned networks. Even if an incumbent internet-service-provider is doing a decent job, an extensive needs-analysis and shopping for alternatives could increase the quality of service from that incumbent. If not, communities can move forward with public solutions.


Political Accountability

In 2011, everyone running for any elected municipal office in Longmont, Colorado, had an option to sign a pledge supporting community broadband, regardless of their party or political affiliation. All signed.

Consider a similar action that makes supporting community broadband a political issue for state and federal legislative races. Access to broadband should have political consequences for those that support it – and those who don’t.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” He also wrote a primer on hybrid wired/wireless.

The opinions expressed in the Daily Yonder’s “Speak Your Piece” are those of the author, unless otherwise noted. If you’d like to respond to this article or write about a different topic for “Speak Your Piece,” contact the Daily Yonder’s editor, Tim Marema. (tim [ at ]



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