Going the last mile

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High-speed broadband internet service is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity for students to research and do homework, for businesses to conduct commerce, for telemedicine in underserved areas and for citizens to enjoy the amenities so commonplace in today’s culture. Sadly, too many North Carolinians don’t have affordable high-speed broadband internet access, a problem that deserves our attention and action.

Why doesn’t everyone have this service? There are many obstacles, but the simple explanation is that it isn’t economical or profitable for the private sector to provide at prices most can afford to pay. In more urban and developed areas service is generally delivered through fiber optic cable, but fiber is prohibitively expensive in sparsely populated areas and, while new technologies are being developed, they aren’t coming quickly enough, aren’t reliable enough or aren’t affordable.

This situation is not unlike the problem our nation encountered in providing electricity to rural areas. By the 1930s, 90 percent of residents in cities and towns had electricity available to their homes. But 90 percent of residents in rural areas had no service. In 1936 Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, authorizing low interest loans to service providers, followed later by the Electric Cooperative Corporation Act that spawned the many regional electric co-ops that have been so vital to life in our state.

North Carolina’s Broadband Internet Office has set a goal for every citizen to have access, not just to the Internet but to affordable higher speed service, by 2021. Sen. Harry Brown has spearheaded legislation that established a grants program of $10 million for less affluent, less populated areas. It’s called GREAT, Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, and 11 counties have contracts to expand high-speed broadband access to more than 10,000 homes, businesses, libraries, schools and hospitals through a variety of distribution channels.

GREAT is a highly commendable effort but is neither large enough in scope nor sufficiently funded to reach the 2021 goal.

A measure being considered by the legislature would allow municipal governments to use tax dollars to build high-speed internet networks in underserved areas, but the proposal would then require the government to lease out the network to private service providers. To be sure the government entity would require lease fees sufficient enough to help amortize their initial investment, so we question whether the private sector — that maintains it can’t profitably construct, maintain and provide high-speed internet infrastructure — could be profitable when having to pay reasonable lease fees on top of operating expenses?

We certainly understand, and at some level agree with, the precept that government not compete with the private sector, however it seems to be forgotten that for many years in most communities the town owned and operated the power plant that either generated and/or distributed power. North Carolina’s Electricities still own and maintain power distribution lines, even though they purchase power from public utilities.

We think it is time to re-think this situation. Perhaps we should copy the playbook from the 1930s. We could partner GREAT with co-ops, either new or existing, using grants, low-interest loans or other assistance to get high-speed broadband access to everyone. North Carolina needs to go the last mile.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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