Frustrated With Low-Speed Internet? Community Broadband Networks Offer Another Way
There are dozens of reasons your community is great.
The area’s natural beauty, the historic buildings and unique character. The wonderful people, the cute coffee shop, the vibrant downtown night scene.
Most people don’t have much trouble talking about why they love their town. But, what do you say when it comes to the things that make your community’s economy vibrant and resilient? You might start with tax incentives, property values, a robust and well-maintained transportation system. You can mention educational attainment, affordability, the buy local campaign to support small businesses. But, no matter how educated, how beautiful, how affordable your community, it is really difficult to sustain a competitive economy without fast internet.
Broadband, or high-speed internet access, is essential for local businesses to thrive, for students to access the best educational opportunities, for people to connect with each other and participate fully in the information age. In some states, broadband access is not available to as much as 15% of the population (excluding mobile technology). The broadband gap is felt most in rural and low-income areas, where investment in technology infrastructure can seem risky for large companies. And, even in areas where access is more prolific, service may not be reliable or affordable.
For communities without broadband, or where competition is limited, there is a solution.
Many cities and towns across the country are creating their own community broadband networks. Owned by municipal governments, non-profit organizations, or cooperatives, these publicly-owned utilities are providing local service that is fast, reliable and affordable. Establishing a local internet provider may seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but over 180 cities and towns in the United States have some publicly-owned fiber service for parts of their community. These utilities serve local needs, focusing less on profit and more on providing services that benefit community goals.
The most obvious motivation for community broadband is to support economic development. In Lafayette, Louisiana, the fiber-optic network intiated by Lafayette Utilities System was key to attracting a satellite office for Pixel Magic. A similar story comes from Martinsville, Virginia where the expansion of the Martinsville Informational Network helped attract a research facility, manufacturing plant and distribution center. Other communities have successfully attracted mid-size corporations as a result of community broadband, but the economic benefits aren’t just about business recruitment.
For many places, updated technology is about keeping local businesses alive. To stay competitive, local businesses must keep up with customer demands for reliable and fast-loading pages. What happens to a small retailer with slow internet in an age when online shoppers expect pages to load in two seconds or fewer? Wilson, North Carolina doesn’t have this worry. In North Carolina’s first gig city, Greenlight Community Broadband focused in on Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government’s business incubator. Once serving primarily low-tech start ups, the incubator is now better able to support economic health in Wilson by providing for the needs of high-tech ventures.
Community Broadband Networks are also enhancing quality of life in ways that go beyond economics.
Broadband plays an important role in supplying high quality educational opportunities for teachers and students. Digital learning is no longer the future - it’s the norm. But, according to Education Superhighway, 72% of K-12 public schools in the U.S. do not have sufficient Internet infrastructure for digital learning. Community networks are stepping in to ensure schools don’t fall behind. Thanks to Community Network Services in rural Georgia, a public network initially established for schools, hospitals and businesses, students can participate in interactive demonstrations with scientists at Georgia Tech.
Publicly-owned broadband networks are also serving a critical role when it comes to health care. A pilot project in Westminster, Maryland is bringing community broadband to a local retirement home. As part of the project, viability of telehealth services will be explored - things like consultations, patient monitoring and physician training.
There are social and civic benefits to broadband as well. Residents can overcome geographic dispersion and isolation through video conferencing and social media. Citizens can obtain data from their local government to get informed about community issues. Government agencies can use mobile apps and other new technology to engage residents and gather feedback. And, yes, broadband is appreciated by those that spend their leisure time streaming movies or playing online games.
If you’re tired of downloading files only on your lunch break or sick of eternally buffering videos, community broadband offers another way.
On the next CommunityMatters conference call, Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and host of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast will share more about why our communities need broadband, and how community-owned networks can offer a viable service.
We'll also hear from Billy Ray of Glasgow Electric Plant Board in Glasgow, Kentucky. Billy helped spearhead efforts to create the first municipal broadband network in the country.
Join us for our free conference call on Thursday, March 13 from 2-3pm Eastern. You’ll learn about the benefits of publicly-owned broadband along with tips for getting started with a community network in your city or town.