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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For years, we’ve heard rural leaders discuss the need for broadband as a critical part of economic development, healthcare, and education. Because we interact mostly with folks who are concerned about rural issues, there’s a temptation to think that metropolitan America has the broadband-access problem all figured out.

But we know better. And we got a timely reminder from the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, in Thursday’s FCC meeting (February 26).

That meeting will get headlines mostly for the FCC’s 3-2 vote in favor of open-Internet rules, also known as net neutrality. But let’s not overlook the FCC’s other 3-2 decision Thursday — the one siding with publicly owned broadband networks and against state laws limiting such networks.

To illustrate why he was voting in favor of a petition from two publicly owned broadband networks, Wheeler cited real-life examples of people who were harmed by state laws restricting community networks. In three of the four cases Wheeler cited, the victims, if you will, weren’t from “deep rural” communities far from the city lights. They were communities on the very doorstep – in the front hall, even – of large metropolitan areas.

Wheeler’s examples show that broadband access isn’t an urban or rural issue. It’s an American issue. And rural advocates who are working to improve access in small towns and the countryside should have plenty of allies in places that are “officially” metropolitan.

Take Wheeler’s first example, Holly Springs, North Carolina, a city of about 25,000 in Wake County. Most of Wake County is not what you’d call rural. It’s part of the Raleigh metropolitan area of more than 1 million residents. In any rural/urban data analysis you see in the Daily Yonder, Holly Springs would be considered urban or metropolitan.

But the city suffered an economic setback that might sound familiar to lots of rural leaders. Chairman Wheeler said the city lost a healthcare business because the company needed better Internet access to do its job. Do you need more evidence of the link between 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.




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