Let’s Get Real on Data to Address North Carolina’s Digital Divide

Christopher Mitchell; Director, Community Broadband Networks Institute for Local Self-Reliance

That key portions of North Carolina do not have the kind of internet access that they need in order for people to thrive and local economies to flourish is not news, particularly in those places themselves. Residents of those areas understand that that to succeed in the modern economy, or simply to enjoy their retirement, they need fast, reliable internet access.

To make that point, municipalities have been educating and must continue to educate key stakeholders – businesses, political leaders, and other influential decision-makers – that we need more tools to ensure North Carolina thrives in the digital age.

One place that is helping in that effort is a new website, begun by the Institute for Local Self- Reliance, a national non-profit which champions the empowerment of local communities to solve and address their own challenges. The new site can be found at nc.localbroadband.org. The site is a hub that is focused on collecting data to demonstrate the need for more investment in better broadband, as well as educating everyone on the importance of empowering local governments to strike these deals to improve access.

A big part of making the case for more authority for local governments to address this challenge is the utter lack of decent access in large swaths of the state. NC.localbroadband. org features a speedtest that can collect highly accurate location information that can be used on maps to respond to common claims from the big service providers in Raleigh that they are solving the problem.

We encourage you to take advantage of and promote this site and speedtest so that policymakers will have real data about actual Internet access speeds in homes and businesses. Though the official Federal Communications Commission broadband maps are a laugh-line to anyone working on this issue, they are used by cable and telephone company lobbyists in Raleigh to oppose common-sense policy to encourage new investment. Right now, the flawed maps continue to be used in determining how broadband funding is distributed. This specific speedtest will collect more granular location data that is commonly available from speedtests.

Meanwhile, North Carolina limits local governments from partnering to solve this problem in ways that most states don’t.

Many communities have barely seen an upgrade in service since a 2011 law was approved that in effect prohibited municipal owned and operated networks. State laws also place restrictions on local governments from even working with a trusted local partner to improve Internet access. While a few municipalities have been able to work with internet service providers like Ting, RiverStreet Networks, Hotwire, or Open Broadband (among others), those companies have all reported that they are limited in how much they can partner with local governments due to overly broad laws limiting local investment.

In many cases, local governments already have some fiber along key routes that can lower the cost for interested Internet service providers to use and expand their network to local businesses and residents – but state law is either murky or hostile in how they have to structure the arrangement. RiverStreet networks has found it easier to invest in rural Virginia counties than in its home state because of these restrictions.

While companies like CenturyLink, AT&T, and Charter Spectrum have invested in many more urban areas of the state with modern networks, they do not have the capacity to solve the problem statewide.

These companies oppose key legislation supported by the N.C. League of Municipalities and N.C. Association of County Commissioners, HB 431 FIBER NC Act, and have been working to try to defeat the bill. Amazingly, at least one of these same companies has embraced this exact public-private partnership model in other states.

CenturyLink has engaged in public/private partnerships in Virginia, Minnesota, and a very high-profile one in Springfield, Missouri.

The challenge of connecting all of North Carolina to modern internet access is beyond the capacity of private sector companies alone, even with all the subsidies being made available from the state and federal government. Meanwhile, many smaller, nimble Internet service providers stand ready and willing to enter into these partnerships with local governments once policymakers remove the reins that are slowing the race to bring better broadband to rural North Carolina.

In a time when people and businesses are having to relocate due to insufficient broadband access, we have to ask ourselves whether we have done everything possible to give communities the tools to incentivize the needed investment.

North Carolina law currently hobbles the entity most responsible for solving basic infrastructure problems – local government. This is the time to enable partnerships between enthusiastic local companies and local governments that want to help solve this problem.