Forgotten by the future, some communities are taking the internet into their own hands
Look outside of your window: if you see miles of farmland, chances are you have terrible internet service. That’s because major telecommunications companies don’t think it’s worth the investment to bring high-speed broadband to sparsely populated areas. But like most businesses, farms increasingly depend on the internet to pay bills, monitor the market and communicate with partners. In the face of a sluggish connection, what's a group of farmers to do?
Grow their own, naturally.
That’s what the people of Lancashire, England, are doing. Last year, a coalition of local farmers and others from the northwestern British county began asking local landowners if they could use their land to begin laying a brand-new community-owned high-speed network, sparing them the expense of tearing up roads. Then, armed with shovels and backhoes, the group, called Broadband for the Rural North, or B4RN (it's pronounced "barn"), began digging the first of what will be approximately 180,000 meters of trenches and filling them with fiber-optic cable, all on its own.
The next step, after raising half a million pounds from shareholders, is to convince Lancastrians to pony up about fifty dollars a month for internet service. (Those who invest £1500 or more can get a year's free service, a tax credit of 30%, and the option to sell the entire investment back in 2016 at full value.) This isn't AOL dial-up: customers will have access to a blazing fast 1 gigabit connection, something that many city-dwellers, myself included, would covet.
A promotional video for B4RN
B4RN is not an isolated movement. Community-supported internets are being constructed in rural areas of the United States too, in places the country's telecom beheamoths have all but ignored. Take the Central Illinois Regional Broadband Network (CIRBN), which has already installed 103 miles of fiber optic cables thanks to an $18 million federal grant combined with state and private funds. The idea is to create a backbone in the suburban Bloomington-Normal area, and then branch out to surrounding rural communities.
Like B4RN, CIRBN will be run as a not-for-profit organization – which, hopefully, means customers won’t be subjected to the absurd fees and impersonal customer service of corporate giants like Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner Cable. Not that major ISPs will be cut out of the picture altogether. If a large telecommunications company thinks there is profit in serving Central Illinois, they’ll be able to partner with CIRBN to provide internet access. Most of the time however, the big players in telecom can't justify investing in rural broadband, which the FCC defines as speeds of at least 4 megabytes per second. Last month, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said that the company was looking for "a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one, to be quite candid."
Governments are pitching in where they can. One of the main goals of the European Regional Development Fund is to finance high-speed broadband in underserved areas of the EU – which sounds great, except in most communities the highest bidder for contracts is BT. In the United States, federal funds set aside for rural broadband development often face obstacles in the form of restrictive state laws. Texas, North Carolina and Nebraska and sixteen other states prohibit or discourage municipalities and public power utilities from offering telecommunications services. That the telecom lobby is behind such laws is not surprising.
In the early 20th century, workers installed city-owned electricity lines in Longmont, Colorado, over protests from the state's large power company.
In 2009, the city of Longmont, Colorado, voted on a referendum to overturn the state's restrictions on city-run broadband networks. It was defeated by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, which spent $300,000 on its campaign, with its biggest contributions coming from – surprise, surprise – Comcast. It took another two years before voters, this time armed with the facts, were able to pass the initiative.
It's a trend that America has seen before: when the country was electrifying in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of communities—including Longmont—formed their own electric utilities as a way of protesting the pitiful rates and service provided by private companies. Indeed, over a century ago, Longmont's citizens found their access to electricity so limited (they could only use their electric lights between 6 pm and 8 pm) and costly that they banded together to build their own electric utility.
The response from the private sector today isn't new either: in the early 1900s, consolidated power companies claimed that public ownership of electrical utilities was “costly and dangerous” and fraught with failure. Most control over the nation's power would end up consolidated into a small group of companies that, the Federal Trade Commission would argue, routinely gouged consumers. Today, more than 2,000 communities in the U.S., including Seattle, San Antonio and Los Angeles, still provide their own electricity.
Community members and USDA officials cut a ribbon on a broadbrand installation in Green County, WI, due for completion this summer. Photo: USDA
The Comcasts of the world might not like it, but the idea of community-owned networks is gaining steam again: the non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance has tracked more than a hundred communities in the U.S. that are running publicly-owned broadband networks--35 of which, in ten states, offer 1-gigabit speeds.
The rapid ascendance of companies like Comcast to the top of the largely uncompetitive U.S. telecom industry (and to the top of lists of donors to the Obama White House) has come alongside a relative decline in American internet service. Just over a decade ago, the US had the fastest internet speeds, fitting for a country that invented the Internet. Today, according to the OECD, the country is 16th fastest in the world. Today, less than 8 percent of Americans receive fiber service to their homes, compared with more than 50 percent of households in South Korea, and almost 40 percent in Japan. When they do get it, Americans pay up to six times as much for their fiber access as people in other countries do.
While North America leads the world in broadband penetration--some 72 percent of households in North America have fixed broadband service --as of June 2011, around 14.5 million rural Americans, or nearly a quarter of the 61 million people living in rural areas, had no fast Internet service to their homes, according to the FCC. The President has set a goal of ensuring that 98 percent of Americans have access at 6 megabytes per second; currently 81 percent do. In the FCC's eighth annual "Broadband Progress Report," issued last summer, the agency's Democratic Commissioners announced, for the third year in a row, that broadband deployment in the U.S. is just not happening fast enough.
'A four-lane interstate versus a crown-top Route 9'
Despite the efforts of lobbyists, governments across the United States and EU see the writing on the wall: internet access is vital to commerce and areas without a reliable connection will be left behind. That’s why the British government set up Broadband Delivery UK to “to ensure [the UK] has the best superfast broadband in Europe by the end of this parliament.” That’s why the US Dept. of Agriculture is handing out Farm Bill loans and Community Connect Broadband grants to isolated communities like Saint Paul, Alaska and Brownington, Missouri, providing free broadband service for critical community services like police, fire, and rescue, and creating community centers with computers and Internet training programs. (See a list of funded projects on the USDA's website.)
High-speed networks (3Mbps and up) in America on the National Broadband Map
A map of community broadband networks; the nineteen states colored red have restrictions on publicly-owned networks. Credit: ISLR
Government grants through the U.S.'s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, initiated as part of the Recovery act, and run by the new National Telecommunications and Information Administration, have also allocated $4.7 billion to help expand rural broadband. In places like rural Georgia, the economic effects are long-lasting--local companies like Impulse Manufacturing are clamoring for broadband--but they can also be immediate, as investments in infrastructure provide jobs and skills to underserved communities.
When Joe Biden visited Georgia in 2009 to announce $33.5 million in grant money to build a 260-mile broadband ring, the vice president laid out the stakes in typically Biden-esque language. "We’ve got essentially, a Georgia Route 9. We don’t have Georgia I-85 — an interstate that can put a whole lot more vehicles, a whole lot more folks, a whole lot more tonnage on the road, and even when it’s congested, get people further faster to their destination with more product in the process. That’s kind of like high-speed Internet; it is a four-lane interstate versus a crown-top Route 9."
Before those funds began to flow, Bruce Abraham and colleagues at the North Georgia Network, the non-profit cooperative that's building the area's new broadband, didn't know “[optic] fiber from muffins.” But, as Abraham told a Brookings Institution forum in early January, “We have raised expectations by bringing this infrastructure into the region." Bringing the community on board was a challenge at first, he said, but “now everybody’s pulling us … and it’s a great phenomenon.”
Then again, if private telecoms have their way, Georgia's success could be short-lived. The state legislature is currently considering a bill that, as in some other states, would effectively make it impossible for any city in Georgia to provide its own broadband access, even when the private sector can't and won't provide service.
"Although the proponents of Georgia’s bill claim that they are merely trying to create a level playing field," the digital divide scholar Susan Crawford wrote recently, "these are terms and conditions that no new entrant, public or private, can meet -- and that the incumbents themselves do not live by. You can almost hear the drafters laughing about how impossible the entire enterprise will be." A few days after the state began considering the bill, outgoing FCC chairman Julius Genachowski emphasized the need for local governments to step up to the plate in places where private telecoms aren't providing fast access, and condemned local governments that would sell out their citizens in favor of big companies:
“If a community can’t gain access to broadband services that meet its needs, then it should be able to serve its own residents directly. Proposals that would tie the hands of innovative communities that want to build their own high-speed networks will slow progress to our nation’s broadband goals and will hurt economic development and job creation in those areas.”
Joe Biden visits workers at Impulse Manufacturing in north Georgia to announce federal broadband funds in 2009
Critics of community-owned or publicly-funded broadband have fought such networks on free enterprise grounds, and questioned whether they can be run as well as those operated by private telecom companies. At a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, a Republican subcommittee intends to take aim at the government's broadband funding programs, which, it claims, has either wasted "millions" of dollars or unfairly competed with private companies. Like all businesses that require a considerable investment in infrastructure, home-grown internet efforts are going to face setbacks; consider iProvo, a troubled network that was sold to a private company three years ago before the city of Provo bought it back last year so it could look for a more financially solvent buyer.
Still, there are more success stories than failures, and it’s still premature to start judging broadband networks that usually take at least five years to start turning a profit. Projects like B4RN and CIRBN are being built with decades of service in mind, not just the next few years. Yes, wireless networks might become so strong and reliable in the future that broadband becomes obsolete, but all signs point to a fiber optic cables remaining the standard for long enough that any investment now will pay off before the next big thing arrives.
The effects of hooking up to high-speed internet are getting hard to ignore. Google Fiber caused a major buzz when it began its broadband experiment in Kansas City. The result? A cluster of start-ups dubbed the Kansas City Startup Village popped up to take advantage of the 1-gigabit connection. The prospect is tantalizing to rural areas, which have been the biggest losers in the 21st century economic landscape. While start-ups might not flock to farming communities in Illinois or Colorado, at least businesses in those areas will have a fighting chance in an increasingly wired world.
And who knows? As they become the America's go-to destination for next generation wind power, farms could also be transformed by their communities into high-tech epicenters, with speeds that outdo cities. The only losers under this scenario are companies like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. The farmers, for one, can live with that.
With additional reporting by Alex Pasternack