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By Taylor Knopf
Decades ago, companies and local governments worked to bring electric, water and sewer to the rural communities of North Carolina. Now those organizations want to work together to provide the same access to broadband, something that’s increasingly being seen as the next “standard utility.”
But getting high-speed internet into every corner of North Carolina is proving to be a challenge.
Advocates and lawmakers say that broadband is an economic, education, safety and health care issue that needs to be overcome to help rural communities.
Broadband access could help existing rural businesses and help attract new ones to an area. Rural residents say their students have access to the internet at schools, but often cannot complete online homework assignments at home.
First responders say they need broadband access to better communicate and protect their communities. Broadband would help medical providers better connect and care for their patients through telemedicine, particularly those in rural parts of the state where there’s a lack of providers.
Two bills filed at the state legislature aim to ease the way for broadband to make its way into rural North Carolina. One would allow public-private partnerships between municipalities and internet service providers. The second would allow electric cooperatives access to existing infrastructure to spread broadband into areas without high-speed internet.
The FIBER NC Act would allow cities and counties to build their own broadband infrastructure and lease it to private internet providers. It would also allow municipalities to apply for grants to build and expand the necessary infrastructure.
Cities and counties are not eligible for such grants under current law, according to Scott Mooneyham, N.C. League of Municipalities director of public affairs. He added that agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture give grants to local governments in other states for this type of infrastructure, but not in North Carolina.
The league asked for this bill and has pushed for similar public-private broadband partnership bills in the past without success.
Mooneyham said there are rural parts of the state where it doesn’t always make the most business sense for commercial internet service providers to extend broadband to “the last mile” without this kind of partnership.
“And beyond that, [internet service providers] would be able to utilize the infrastructure that cities and towns already have to partner and serve people,” he said. This could include electric lines and poles.
Eric Cramer, president and CEO of the telephone cooperative Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks, said this is a model that he’s seen work. His company shifted to rural broadband in North Carolina and Virginia more than a decade ago, and he’s been an outspoken advocate for broadband expansion.
Cramer said having a partner that’s willing to borrow money or fund a project eliminates the barrier to entry for a company such as his. His company could walk a municipality through the process, conducting engineering studies and completing other leg work, he said. In the end, Cramer said, the network would still be open to other internet service providers.
“That long-term commitment and relationship is something we need to make these things work. Couple that with federal funding, that’s how you make these things work,” Cramer said to an audience gathered in April for a conference held by NC Hearts Gigabit, a project of NC Broadband Matters. “This bill would enable us to get to a lot of these underserved areas.”
The NC FIBER Act was introduced in the state House, with four influential primary bill sponsors and dozens of bipartisan cosponsors.
“I think this issue will come down to — do legislators want to be responsive to their constituents? Or do they want to continue to believe the empty promises of the monopolies out there who don’t want competition?” he said.
But bills such as the NC FIBER Act have gone from the House to the Senate only to fail.
One reason for that could be that for the past three years, the NC Cable Telecommunications Association has hired a powerful lobbyist with deep connections in the Senate, the former head of the rules committee Tom Apodaca who left that chamber and quickly formed a powerhouse lobbying firm.
It was the telecom industry that encouraged passage of a bill back in 2011 which prohibited municipalities from establishing their own broadband services, after the eastern city of Wilson set up its own network.
Meanwhile, a bill called Electric Co-Op Rural Broadband Services has been quickly making its way through both chambers and is scheduled to be heard in both House and Senate committees today.
Rep. Dean Arp (R-Monroe) sponsored the House version of the bill because he said the number one question he gets regarding rural broadband services is: “Can’t we use what’s in the ground already?”[sponsor]
“This allows the state’s electric cooperatives to seek federal grant money to provide broadband services and allow them to add fiber optic network for rural broadband using their existing infrastructure,” he said introducing the bill to the House judiciary committee Tuesday.
“The vast majority of rural areas in the state have zero or one option for basic broadband access,” Arp explained. “Given the electric cooperatives extensive infrastructure and their knowledge of community needs, they are in the best position to deliver the high-speed internet options.”
Cramer, from the Wilkes-based co-op, also expressed support for this bill, saying that a lot of the electric co-ops are getting into the broadband business.
“They already have fiber and towers, so anywhere someone has an asset we can use and get into a revenue share or lease […], anything to help do that would help us,” he said.