The digital divide is still way too wide
It was just a press release, one among the dozens a week that media outlets receive and that may or may not make it into the paper, on TV, on the radio or on a website. When it came across my computer screen, though, it seemed suddenly clear to me that it was symbolic of how our economic development priorities have to change.
“Gov. Cooper recommends eight Western North Carolina projects for ARC funding,” read the headline. Looking at the eight projects revealed that of the $3 million the Appalachian Regional Commission will most likely award, $1,374,714 was for an access road to a new development in Morganton and another $873,509 was to repave a road to an existing industrial site in Rutherford County.
No doubt those are worthy projects, but what stuck out was that the ARC was dedicating up $2.25 million of this grant money — 75 percent — to pavement, while a grand total of $47,500 will go to the Next Generation Network broadband project that is aimed at stimulating private high-speed broadband development in Waynesville and six other communities (Asheville, Hendersonville, Biltmore Forest, Fletcher and Laurel Park).
Let’s be clear. The $47,500 was exactly the amount the Land of the Sky Regional Council asked for. The committee leading this project is hoping to begin seeking bids this spring and will hopefully choose a contractor to begin installing broadband by the summer of 2017.
But the fact that the preponderance of this federal grant program is still going for roads and so little for broadband is, I think, a reflection that there is still a long way to go before state and federal policymakers begin giving more than lip service to the need for rural broadband. You hear lawmakers and economic development folks say all the time that we need to bring affordable broadband to the coves and valleys if we are ever going to be able to compete for the jobs created in the new economy that are now going to urban areas and the suburbs.
Affordable broadband will lead to business investment that will reduce poverty and stimulate job growth. No doubt in rural Western North Carolina that broadband will have to be a mixture of line-of-sight and fiber technology to meet the expensive last-mile issues.
The large telecom companies can’t realize a profit by expanding into rural areas, so there’s little hope that they will put their resources into this effort. It reminds one of when Franklin Roosevelt and Congress had to pass the Rural Electrification Act in 1936 and make loans available — essentially federal subsidies — in order to bring electricity to rural areas.
Look, the truth is the federal government subsidizes all kinds of industries large and small. So providing money — perhaps loans, perhaps outright grants — for rural broadband projects seems the only way the playing field will ever be leveled.
Right now, families living in some coves can’t get phone service and certainly can’t get any kind of internet connections. And even if they did have access to it, then the question of affordability creeps into the equation. Infrastructure is not cheap.
In the 1800s it was the coming of the railroads that brought prosperity and economic development to isolated communities; then it was electricity that changed the way of life in rural America.
Now we need internet. Yes, we also need good roads, but what if for a couple of years we detoured 10 or 15 percent of all the road-building money in the U.S. into expanding broadband capacity? What if this new administration in D.C. would include these kinds of projects as it promises to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure?
The truth of the matter is that a fast, dependable digital connection is the starting point for moving goods and services all over the world. And priorities must change so rural America can get in the game.