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COLUMN: Let’s unleash more broadband solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully obvious how many rural counties are unserved, underserved or, at best, paying too much for substandard broadband service by the large, incumbent internet service providers in North Carolina. These conglomerates only seek the “low hanging fruit” offered by densely populated urban areas and ignore the internet needs of students in places like Stanly County trying to access school curriculum online or their house-bound parents working from home. Totally ignored, too, are elderly residents, who are most susceptible to the virus and desperately need access to telemedicine as a means of avoiding infection and staying healthy.

Gerald Poplin

This summer’s announcement that Open Broadband LLC would bring gigabit broadband to the Stanly County Airport and the planned N.C. Emergency Training Center, and use the fiber backbone of that project to provide fixed-wireless access to nearby homes and businesses is a welcome advancement.

Additionally, Stanly County and Montgomery County officials are currently working with MCNC to construct a $4.1 million fiber backbone spanning both counties from Midland to Biscoe. The 48.5-mile project will follow the N.C. Highway 24-27 corridor. Once completed, both counties will be able to invest in middle-mile infrastructure and attract new, smaller, rural oriented ISPs.

But progress has not been quick or easy. Fearing competition from local public options, the big cable and telephone companies have lobbied — often in coordination with the American Legislative Exchange Council — to limit local authority to create broadband networks. As industry expert, Doug Dawson, recently wrote, “Public policy in 19 states deliberately impedes communities’ abilities to create public options, strengthening monopoly control, and preventing competition, investment, and a better deal on Internet service. The Federal Communications Commission created an extensive record on these barriers, finding they restricted competition. However, the 6th Circuit ruled that the FCC could not strike down state barriers on municipal networks.”

Lacking the service that residents and businesses require, local governments in less restrictive states began building their own community networks to ensure modern service at a reasonable price. In most cases, community investments only added a single competitor to the market, but disrupted the marketplace by offering transparent pricing, minimal price increases, and multiple speed upgrades. In addition, while monopoly cable and telephone companies use notoriously opaque pricing structures, local providers and community networks have been shown to be both more transparent and affordable in their pricing.

The truth is that we need to allow all entities in North Carolina, public and private, to bring all resources to the table to solve this crisis. Our state legislature and the governor’s office should be working to mitigate or remove laws like HB-129 (2011) that discourage or prevent local governments from building broadband networks and passing legislation like the FIBER NC Act — opposed by the big telecommunication companies — which would remove barriers that now make these arrangements nearly impossible.

Local governments have the most knowledge about what their needs and challenges are and what assets are available for broadband deployment. But more importantly, they have the most incentive to act.

Given the stakes today, throwing up hurdles to any solutions to help bridge our digital divide is both shortsighted and unconscionable.

Dr. Gerald Poplin is the retired president of Uwharrie Technology, former CIS professor at Pfeiffer University, previous member of Apple’s Advisory Council for North America, and current member of the N.C. Information Technology Strategy Board.