Why Rural America Still Doesn’t Have Broadband Access

Large and medium-sized cities, like Atlanta, Kansas City, or Charlotte, know that they can likely depend on a major Internet Service Provider (ISP) to build gigabit networks and offer broadband services to their residents. Some medium-sized cities, such as Chattanooga, decided they didn’t want to wait, and built their own networks. But for residents of some small towns and rural communities, neither one of these options is realistic. Major ISPs aren’t going to go to the tremendous expense of building a fiber network for a small number of residents, especially in towns that are well outside major population centers. Chattanooga built its fiber network because it owned its municipal electrical utility, and even then, it required a grant of $111 million from the Department of Energy. While there are federal programs to bring high-speed Internet to rural America, few towns will ever earn a grant of that magnitude. The Size of the Fight in the Dog Small towns that are reasonably close to larger fiber hubs are showing an increased willingness to build their own local network and connect to existing, outside fiber resources. That’s the case in Oregon, where a number of communities outside Portland are drawing inspiration from the town of Sandy. Despite a population of only 10,000 people, Sandy built its own broadband network by selling $7 million worth of 20-year bonds. The modestly-sized network connects 3,500 homes via 43 miles of fiber, and SandyNet, the local ISP, charges only $40 for 100 Mbps and $60 for 1 Gbps, which is less than Google charges for gigabit service. For many cities, Chattanooga has served as the “If they can do it, why can’t we?” model for other cities. But if tiny Sandy, OR can create a successful gigabit fiber network, then what excuse does your town have for not doing so? Towns Team Up Another new model for small and rural communities seeking broadband access is multiple communities coming together to share construction costs. In December, nearly 50 towns in Connecticut joined forces for such a project. This April, the Maine communities of Rockport and Rockland joined forces to improve connection speeds. And in Massachusetts, more than 50 communities are about to vote on whether to pay for fiber infrastructure. Public Pressure on the Private Sector We stand by our original statement that small towns can’t depend on private ISPs to build their networks. But perhaps ironically, as it becomes easier to build public networks, private ISPs become more likely to invest in fiber infrastructure. No ISP wants to lose existing market share to a municipal network, so the fact that some towns are building their own networks—or could build them—represents a new form of competition for broadband business. In some cases, communities interested in building their own networks still face opposition not from the cable or phone industries, but from their state governments. Tennessee is suing the FCC to preserve states’ rights to prevent municipal networks, giving private ISPs in some states at least a temporary cushion against increased public competition. The DIY Option With so many possibilities but so few answers, why not find your own answer? Building your high-speed Internet connection could be as simple as changing plans and plugging in a few cables. Photo Credit: Kenner Spencer/Flikr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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