There are many examples of why expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access to everyone is essential, but for those still waiting for service, it may seem hopeless. For those concerned about the costs, it may not seem feasible. But it is – in North Carolina and most of the United States. Here we focus on real examples and discuss how better policy can expand high-quality Internet access to everyone in a financially responsible manner.
The first thing to understand is that large telecommunications companies – mostly cable and telephone – will not bring high-quality broadband Internet access to rural regions. Big cable companies like Charter Spectrum stick to the big cities, and even there they do not have a reliable track record of competitive prices, high speeds, and good customer service. The biggest telephone companies in North Carolina are AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Windstream. Windstream filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and Frontier is fast heading toward it in 2020. CenturyLink has announced a focus on dense areas and business customers. And while AT&T has taken billions of dollars in federal subsidies, the new networks were obsolete before they turned on.
But local providers – including cooperatives like Wilkes Communications, private companies like Open Broadband, and even local governments like Wilson in Eastern North Carolina – are getting the job done where they can. Consider Wilkes Communications, a cooperative that built fiber out to all of its member-owners before creating RiverStreet Networks to expand high-quality Internet access much further across the state.
While big companies like AT&T basically ignored small towns like Mount Olive, Open Broadband worked with local leaders to find solutions and are continuing to invest in local business connections. These solutions are a good start, but communities are too limited in how they can partner. This podcast interview (with transcript) describes how RiverStreet Networks is doing some limited partnerships but could do so much more if the state removed barriers to investment.
In Colorado, another state with many challenges to connecting rural populations, communities still face the barrier of a referendum before being able to do public-private partnerships for broadband. The result has been innovative partnerships like Project THOR to bring fiber to rural regions or a partnership between private company Allo and the city of Fort Morgan. More on Thor here.