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ASHEVILLE – More than 45,000 residents in 15 counties of Western North Carolina do not have access to high-speed Internet service via a cable or telephone line, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission.
Graham County topped all WNC counties with 32 percent of its 8,802 residents lacking broadband access via a “wireline” technology such as cable or DSL. It was followed by Clay County with almost 19 percent, Cherokee with 18 percent, and Jackson with 17 percent.
Rutherford County had the largest number of residents without access to broadband at 7,413, or 11 percent of its 67,583 residents (see table). The report defines broadband speed as a minimum of 3 megabits-per-second for downloading and 768 kilobits-per-second for uploading.
Nationwide, approximately 19 million Americans live beyond the reach of wired broadband access. More than three-quarters of these citizens – 14.5 million – live in rural areas. The findings were published Aug. 21 in the FCC's Eighth Broadband Progress Report.
“This report is not news to many of our rural neighbors who continue to struggle without access to affordable broadband Internet service,” said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN). He estimated the number of WNC residents without broadband access to be even higher when cost and affordability are considered. MAIN provides wireless broadband access in parts of Mitchell, Yancey, Madison and Buncombe counties.
The report also estimates that 100 million Americans choose not to subscribe to broadband Internet in the home. This “adoption gap” is five times greater than the “availability gap” for those who live beyond the reach of a wired broadband service. The report cited “a persistent digital divide” among rural, low-income, and minority Americans.
To expand broadband access in rural areas, the FCC has begun re-directing $4.5 billion a year from its Universal Service Fund – comprised of monthly fees paid by all US phone subscribers – into a
new Connect America Fund to provide subsidies to incumbent carriers. Community-based broadband networks which have sprung up in rural areas are not eligible for CAF support.
“It's alarming to learn that 40 percent of all Americans cannot access or cannot afford broadband Internet service, especially when so many basic services today require high-speed access,” said Bowen.
“When 40 percent of the nation had no access to electricity or the telephone, we took action” by empowering community-based rural electric and telephone cooperatives, he said. “Instead, current FCC policy showers subsidies on incumbent carriers that routinely neglect rural communities, yet that same policy disqualifies local networks doing the hard work of connecting rural America.”
Cracks have appeared in the FCC's Connect America program. The program recently offered $300 million in CAF subsidies, but only $85 million was accepted by incumbent carriers. The nation's largest telcos, Verizon and AT&T, rejected all CAF funding.
“We hope the FCC wakes up the fact that directing Connect America subsidies to homegrown networks is a better long-term investment than giving subsidies to carriers whose primary concern appears to be eliminating competition,” said Bowen. He said the omission of local broadband networks from the CAF program “fits a pattern” of cable and telco efforts to limit competition, such as restricting local governments' ability to build broadband networks. So far, 20 states – including North Carolina – have passed anti-municipal broadband laws pushed by cable and telco lobbyists.
But like rural electric and telephone cooperatives which took root in mid-20th century America, nonprofit broadband networks are private-sector entities and therefore less vulnerable to legislative prohibitions, said Bowen. “The only way to keep nonprofit networks from sprouting up across rural America is to make them ineligible for CAF support,” he said.
Ron Walters is the executive director of PANGAEA Internet, a nonprofit broadband network which operates almost 200 miles of fiber-optic lines in Polk and Rutherford counties. He is not surprised that the FCC report found more than 10,000 residents in these counties who live beyond the reach of wired broadband service.
Yet he calls Western North Carolina a “national leader” in addressing the rural broadband crisis, citing the deployment of fiber-optic broadband infrastructure by local nonprofit networks such as PANGAEA, ERC Broadband, and French Broad EMC. A fourth fiber network, Balsam West, is a public-private partnership between the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and a local software firm.
Walters also sees a disconnect between the FCC's Connect America program and nonprofit networks' potential to solve the rural broadband problem. “We have already made a lot of progress here in
western North Carolina, but we could do so much more if we were eligible for Connect America support,” he said.
Walters and Bowen agree that running fiber lines to homes and businesses in a rural, mountainous environment is cost prohibitive. That's why they see unlicensed wireless broadband technology as the
“last-mile” solution for homes and businesses in WNC.
In 2008, the FCC unanimously approved vacant TV channels – known as “white spaces” – for unlicensed delivery of broadband wireless in rural and other underserved areas. Unlike existing unlicensed
spectrum, the TV white spaces can deliver broadband speeds of 15-20 mbps over long distances while penetrating buildings and heavy foliage.
“We have been waiting for the TV white spaces technology for four years, yet it's still not commercially available,” said Bowen. “If the FCC is serious about solving the rural broadband crisis, it should use some of the $4.5 billion in annual Connect America funding to get this technology to market without further delay.”
Bowen believes a cost-effective and long-term solution to the rural broadband crisis is at hand if the FCC implemented two simple reforms: Expand CAF eligibility to include community-based nonprofit
networks; and use CAF subsidies to get TVWS technology to market.
“Of course, nothing is ever simple in Washington when powerful corporate interests are involved,” he said.