Editor’s Note: The Universal Need for Speed

Rural communities lag in broadband access, but it’s easy to forget they aren’t alone in their need to improve Internet connectivity.

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broadband and the economy? Ask Jeff Wilson, Holly Springs’ information technology director, about the cost of being stuck in the Internet’s slow lane.

Eva Van Hook, a mother from Bradley County, Tennessee, says her son has to drive to the family’s church, where there is better Internet access, to do some of his homework. That probably rings a bell for rural residents who have to scavenge for broadband in the parking lot of a restaurant or library because they have no access at home.

But Bradley County is officially metropolitan, as well – a small metro, to be sure, but still officially metro when it comes to most analyses you’ll see in the Daily Yonder and other publications.

Another example Chairman Wheeler cited was on the fringe of Chattanooga, a city in a metropolitan area of more than half a million residents. Again, by Yonder standards, it’s decidedly urban. But that’s no practical help to Richard Thompson, who lives just outside the service area of Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network and can’t connect to its 1-gigabit system. As a result, Thompson cobbles together phone, Internet and TV services from different providers, spending more than twice as much as he would pay if he were just three-quarters of a mile closer to town. And for the extra cost, he gets slower Internet service. Now that should sound familiar to the many rural residents who live just far enough from town to fall outside the service area of an Internet provider.

Wheeler did cite one “officially” rural example: Highlands, North Carolina, located in Macon and Jackson counties in the state’s western mountains. There, the town of 1,000 residents wanted to create its own network to bolster economic development. But state law hampered them, says town staff member Matt Schuler.

Statistically, rural residents are less likely to have access to high-speed broadband than metropolitan residents. (There’s debate on just how big the gap is, but everyone agrees it’s worse in rural.) But the result is the same, no matter where you live. Your kids have a tougher time with school. Economic opportunities circle but don’t land. Residents wind up paying more money for crummier service.

There’s no guarantee that a community is going to thrive simply by getting good, affordable broadband, just as you don’t expect a high school student to get A’s because he has broadband at home. But you can bet a student who can’t finish his homework isn’t going to make an A, just as communities that lack broadband aren’t going to create jobs that rely on the Internet.

Community network enthusiasts will consider the FCC’s vote Thursday a victory for underserved communities, wherever they may be. The matter will likely head to the courts before resolution.

Municipal broadband networks aren’t a silver bullet to solve our broadband problem. But they are one more tool that, in some cases, will improve service and lower cost, while forcing private providers to get off the sidelines if they expect to get more of the rural market.

And that’s a good thing, no matter which side of the city limits you live on.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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