Broadband service needs higher priority for region


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Listen in on discussions among area public boards, and it's likely economic development will arise in one form or another. Talk may be about how to stimulate the local economy with incentives to businesses, job creation or recruitment initiatives, or it may center on ways to improve life and outcomes for residents. Both private or non-government associations are talking the same language about how to add business and expand the area's financial horizon.

Many of the ideas that these discussions generate are worth adopting or at least exploring. In those discussions, we'd recommend adding one more topic — if it’s not already on the table — to the economic development agendas: broadband internet expansion. The idea isn't new, but it's worth creating a higher priority for the benefits it brings to everyone — business, education, governments and residents overall. Unfortunately, it won't get the attention it deserves unless local groups, local governments and legislators demand it.

Our story last week by staff writer Jon Hawley outlined both the need and the challenges rural eastern North Carolina faces in obtaining higher speed internet services — at least as high as 25 megabits per second and preferably up to one gigabyte. Currently, about the best we have for public consumption is 10 Mbps. It's not enough to change the outcomes that need changing.

Hawley's story focused on the efforts of high-speed internet advocate Estelle "Bunny" Sanders, who for several years has been a driving force in the region to secure broadband.

Sanders is motivated by the obvious benefits of what high-speed internet represents. Just as an economic development incentive, it opens the door to a wide range of businesses and technologies. Additionally, it creates new teaching tools for public schools and colleges. Of course, not the least of its benefits are the general expansion of internet services and quality of life impacts that this communication technology offers for residents.

It's those benefits of broadband, which are now taken for granted in larger cities and metro areas that have it, that are frustratingly absent in rural North Carolina. That absence is not only a frustrating sense of being left out, but areas that do not have broadband internet are in fact being left behind. Schools, businesses, quality of life — the critical playing fields of competition — are more often ruled by the advantages or disadvantages of whether broadband is available.

A great example of what high-speed service can bring to a community is observable in Wilson — after the city extended broadband services to the community. Today, Wilson residents are proud of the fact that their city is known as a "gigabit city" — the first in this state, they claim. Wilson offers businesses and residents high-speed internet service through the city-operated Greenlight Community Broadband. It's multiple times faster than what regional telecommunications firms are providing.

The impact has been dramatic. Local firms are reinventing their operations, while companies across the country are moving to Wilson. One of those, a visual effects firm that contracts for Hollywood big screen productions, requires a high internet speed and capacity for its global operations. They found it in Wilson.

Just as important, Wilson and its surrounding areas, their schools and residents, are also getting the benefit of the high-speed service.

Most surprising about Wilson's success and the comparative slow-speed drought the rest of the region's rural areas are experiencing is the lack of vision shown by the North Carolina Legislature not to recognize the opportunities for the region.

The state allocates only $10 million annually, through the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, for projects to extend high-speed internet to unserved areas. That's an egregiously insufficient sum considering broadband's transformative potential.

Moreover, legislative resistance seems to be predicated on following the telecoms’ own lack of motivation to extend high-speed into rural areas. Granted, it's more expensive to maintain services with fewer customers. For telecoms, it's often a dollar-and-cents proposition. But if private firms are unable or unwilling to invest, the legislature, rather than allow the state's rural population to fall behind, should be stepping up, or at least giving local governments the options and tools to do so.

In Hawley's reporting, two of the area's key legislative voices — state Sen. Bob Steinburg and state Rep. Ed Goodwin — agreed that broadband internet service access should be available to the area. With that admission, we urge both to put the matter before their fellow lawmakers.

The internet and the services it now offers has made it, on so many levels, another component of public infrastructure — like electricity, water and phone service. But as long as this duality of service exists — low speed or high speed — the people and regions of North Carolina will continue to be separated into the haves and have nots.