Opinion

‘Let’s Connect’ seeks better broadband for rural NC

Eastern Carolina Broadband has mounted transmitter equipment on this grain elevator in Lenoir County’s Deep Run community, which can provide a wireless signal for internet service in a five-mile radius.
Eastern Carolina Broadband has mounted transmitter equipment on this grain elevator in Lenoir County’s Deep Run community, which can provide a wireless signal for internet service in a five-mile radius. ccampbell@ncinsider.com

North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states in the nation, but it lags behind its peers in one key metric — broadband.

While North Carolina struggles to connect its small towns and rural communities, most of North Dakota is already blanketed with high quality broadband networks. Thanks to the state’s utility cooperatives, which have invested heavily in improving local connectivity, a family in rural North Dakota almost certainly has better Internet access than a household in any one of North Carolina’s biggest cities.

This point was driven home at a community broadband meeting that my organization, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, helped coordinate last month in Albemarle. During the event, one of the attendees posted on social media about the need for better Internet access in rural North Carolina. His relatives in North Dakota replied saying that they didn’t even realize that rural connectivity was still an issue in other states. They’d had access to high speed broadband for so long that they were surprised a more densely populated coastal state was still grappling with it.

The meeting in Albemarle was one in a series of events, called Let’s Connect, that aimed to start the conversation on improving Internet access in North Carolina. In addition to Albemarle, events were held in Fuquay-Varina and Jacksonville. The Institute for Local-Self Reliance, the NC League of Municipalities, and NC Hearts Gigabit organized the tour, and community leaders and representatives from local Internet access providers spoke at the various events.

The Let’s Connect meetings emphasized the fact that contributions from private companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and the state government are all necessary to bring modern, high-speed connectivity to rural North Carolinians. This is especially true since the federal government is not doing much to close the digital divide. Instead, it continues to waste millions each year in federal subsidies to AT&T, CenturyLink, and Frontier to build obsolete networks, dooming rural America to increasing irrelevance in the modern economy.

Fortunately, companies like Open Broadband, Ting, and Hotwire Communications — which were all featured at the Let’s Connect events — are stepping in to build high quality broadband networks in underserved North Carolina communities. And RiverStreet Networks, which also spoke at the meetings, has ambitious plans to bring fiber optic Internet access to rural areas across the state.

However, the impact of this private investment is restricted because North Carolina limits the ability of municipalities and counties to partner with firms like these to improve broadband access. Local governments are an essential piece of this puzzle, and the General Assembly should empower them to partner with private companies to build the essential infrastructure needed by local businesses and residents.

Poor connectivity in rural areas is not inevitable; it’s just a matter of implementing better policies.

Katie Kienbaum is a Research Associate with the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She researches and writes about rural Internet access.

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