For years, people have said our state needs to widen access to high-speed internet.
Then the pandemic hit, and all of the sudden the issue went from general concern to red-blinking alarm.
Now everyone is talking about this, and we’re hearing the same phrases over and over:
“We need to close the digital divide.”
“We need to bridge the homework gap.”
What does a realistic solution actually look like?
Let’s take a look.
Let’s break this problem into two pieces: short-term and long-term.
In the short-term, the biggest concern is families who don’t have broadband for remote learning or working or telehealth. This is an immediate concern that we have to address right now.
So what technologies can do that? How can we get them broadband (official definition: download at 25 megabytes per second and upload at three megabytes per second)?
There are five technologies that can do that.
- DSL — This is copper wire, same as your phone line. It’s not being built much anymore, having been largely surpassed by cable and fiber which carry data much more quickly.
- Cable — Also run on copper wire, but faster than DSL because it’s designed for video transmission (i.e., cable T.V.). Faster than DSL, slower than fiber.
- Fiber — This is what everyone wants, but it’s expensive. It costs about $20k — $50k per mile to install.
- WiFi — Comes with limited reach and limited service, but requires far less infrastructure than fiber. This is the cheapest, quickest way to get people broadband.
- Satellite — This technology is relatively new and very expensive. The state has a $1m pilot program to test its potential. Its use in rural North Carolina so far has come with plenty of complaints about slow speeds and spotty connections.
For a short-term, immediate fix, the clear choice is more WiFi.
That’s why the state has spent millions on WiFi this year, in three big ways:
- Hot spots for students (several million has been spent on the hot spots themselves — but the funding is just for devices, not data plans, which is an issue)
- WiFi-enabled school buses ($1m appropriated and they’re on 205 buses so far)
- Community WiFi areas (here’s a link for public WiFi access in North Carolina.)
But we haven’t done enough. There’s still a major gap between the demand for WiFi and the supply, particularly among K-12 students.
When it comes to meeting the demand, there’s no huge mystery about how to do that: It’s a matter of state and local appropriations.
Ideally, the way it would work is that the federal government would pass another stimulus bill, which would include a major source of funds for state and local governments.
The North Carolina legislature, in turn, would provide funding for more WiFi access.
That’s how we were able to provide the WiFi funding listed above — it came out of the first federal stimulus.
But so far, Congress hasn’t been able to agree on a second stimulus bill.
That’s a major problem. Why? Because North Carolina — like 49 other states — operates on a cash budget.
That means that, except for very narrow exceptions, we aren’t allowed to have a deficit. And we’re already projected to fall short this fiscal year due to the pandemic — as are most states.
That makes the federal government the logical funding source for these types of priorities, so we need them to get that figured out A.S.A.P.
More WiFi is the short-term answer.
More fiber is the long-term answer (note: unless satellite makes rapid progress and the price drops considerably).
The challenge with installing more fiber is that the unserved communities tend to be in the mountains — where fiber installation is very expensive — or in sparsely populated parts of the state where the customer base would be small.
In both cases, it’s tough for the financial math to work for private internet providers when it comes to installing fiber.
So there are two things we need to do. One is cheap and one is not.
First, we need to repeal a state law that prohibits municipalities from laying fiber.
We never should have passed this law in the first place.
It happened in 2011. At the time, a handful of small cities across the country were starting to build their own broadband infrastructure.
In eastern North Carolina, the city of Wilson (pop. 50,000) had built Greenlight, its own fiber network that currently provides access to 6,000 residents, the local school system, and free wireless internet for all of downtown. Other North Carolina cities and towns were gearing up to follow suit.
This trend was seen as a competitive threat to the private internet providers, who lobbied for the ironically-named “level the playing field act.”
In reality, it was a protectionist measure designed to prevent private internet providers from having to compete with municipalities that decided to provide a public option to their citizens.
There is real financial pressure of providers. But, when this bill was passed, those providers gave a number of assurances that they would close the digital gap.
Well, it’s been a decade. Progress has been made, but if these folks were going to solve the problem themselves it’d be done by now.
If municipalities decide to make this a priority — which makes sense, lots of them would like to attract millennials and digital industries — they should be able to do that. Especially since municipalities already do civil engineering work and many own or control right-of-ways and poles. Leveraging those advantages makes sense, but current law makes it very difficult and we should change that.
The second thing we should do — which would not be cheap — is to ramp up the state’s existing fiber subsidy program.
Here’s the way it works: The state puts out a bid to extend fiber to a community. Internet providers respond with offers to do the job and request a certain amount of grant money from the state to do it. As a general matter, the provider who requests the least amount of grant money gets the project.
This has been successful and efficient — just too small.
Right now, it’s funded with $15m a year, and set to continue for the next 10 years.
That means we’re planning on spending $150m on this — but over 10 years.
It would make more sense to front-load as much of that funding as possible. It’s hard to defend telling these communities that they’re on your list and you’re looking forward to getting to them — in 8–10 years.
Some of you are reading this and thinking, “He hasn’t gotten to the part about my family yet. Yes, we theoretically have access to broadband in that we live near a city and it’s physically present as an option. But we can’t afford it, so we might as well not have access.”
And to be honest, the communities that are under-served vastly outnumber the communities that are simply unserved.
So it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
First, there are discount or low-cost broadband programs offered in North Carolina, but most people don’t know about them. You can learn more here.
Beyond that, we need to focus on ways to help put more money into the pockets of working families generally, through efforts like the restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit and an expansion of the Child Tax Credit.
As a final note, I want to sincerely commend our state’s Department of Information Technology. They have a Broadband Infrastructure Office and a State Broadband Plan that is comprehensive, realistic, and ambitious. There really are some great people working on this, they just need some more help from the state legislature.