As anticipation grows for 5G technology to be rolled out in big cities, nearly 15 million people in rural pockets across the country are still waiting for reliable high-speed internet. In the southeast, some states like Alabama are desperate to get their rural areas up to speed.
About ten years ago, we first reported on Johnson City (TN). At that time, the community was in the process of installing fiber to improve reliability for their public electric utility. The Johnson City Power Board (JCPB) discussed the possibility of offering broadband via the new infrastructure, but they weren’t quite ready to move forward. Now JCPB has renamed itself BrightRidge and has not only started connecting local subscribers with fiber optic connectivity, but is offering 10 gig symmetrical service.
In many states, elected officials are listening to constituents and experts who tell them that they need fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to keep their communities from dwindling. States that refuse funding to public entities, however, block out some of the best opportunities to connect people and businesses in rural areas. In places such as Michigan, Tennessee, and Virginia, states need to trust their own people to develop necessary broadband networks.
The tussle over "network neutrality" started 20 years ago in Portland (OR). Today, Portland and its region are poised to be Ground Zero for resolving the real issues behind public concern over “net neutrality”—the stagnant, uncompetitive, hopelessly outclassed state of internet access in America. Portland is taking seriously the idea of a publicly overseen dark-fiber network over which private providers could compete to offer cheap, ubiquitous internet access.
The lion’s share of discussion around the digital divide has centered around access, but the prices rural consumers are paying for the services available to them are worth paying attention to as well. According to our research, roughly 146 million rural Americans do not have access to a low-priced plan for wired broadband internet. That’s nearly 45 percent of the US population. We define “low-priced” as a broadband plan with a monthly cost less than or equal to the 20th percentile of all plan prices, or around $60 per month.
Residents in Falmouth (MA), like residents in many communities in Massachusetts, have begun to look toward fiber as a means to ensure faster and more reliable Internet service. Falmouth would be the first Cape Cod town to build a municipally owned fiber-optic network. Similar projects in towns across MA are underway or completed. Westfield Gas & Electric’s Whip City Fiber division is in the process of connecting 20 small rural towns to a fiber-optic network in Western MA. The fiber is already live in Alford and Otis.
One of the first decisions a community needs to make in bringing broadband to residents is what sort of network to operate. Should the network be closed, with one Internet service provider providing service to residents; open and lit, providing the basic infrastructure for potentially competing ISPs; or open with dark fiber leased to competing ISPs? All three models have their proponents and detractors. In my experience and opinion, no one model is ideal for every community. Each option impacts how a community will build and operate a network, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
The disadvantages inherent to rural towns – geography, low population density and lack of fiber density – compound one another to make sourcing middle-mile transport unusually difficult for rural municipalities. In addition, incumbents that might provide backhaul generally aren’t thrilled with the prospect of losing market share. They may view municipal network initiatives as competitive threats and resist working with municipalities on sourcing middle-mile transport and/or lobby to fight them in their quest to modernize.
Arkansas is the least connected of the 50 states. Since 2011, the state has banned cities and towns from building their own networks, outlawing a local solution that has been hailed as an effective way for communities to connect themselves when they don’t have internet providers. In 2019, however, AR appears to be having a change of heart. Under the weight of constituent complaints about lousy internet—and after years of waiting for subsidies to goad telecommunication giants into expanding the infrastructure—the state legislature in Feb passed a bill to repeal its ban.
Local communities in the state of Mississippi have the legal authority to develop publicly owned Internet networks and offer broadband, or any other utility, to the general public. When it comes to bonding in order to financing deployment for broadband infrastructure, however, the law isn’t as cut and dry. In order to stay on the right side of the law, the community of Columbus (MS) decided to obtain permission from the state legislature to issue bonds for a $2.75 million expansion of their existing fiber optic network.