RALEIGH — Lawmakers are trying to make it easier for broadband providers to reach that last lonely house on that far-away dirt road.
Supporters — a group of bipartisan lawmakers — are adamant such a system won’t compete with private businesses.
But critics are asking pointed questions.
Is extending broadband lines the right solution for every neighborhood in the state, given that developing technologies could make such lines obsolete?
Have supporters considered the idea not everyone is interested in a broadband connection? A study shows a slight downtick in homes connected to wired broadband while seeing an increase in wireless connections as people are increasingly using their smartphones to get internet access using 4G LTE networks.
Sponsors say House Bill 68 primarily specifies that broadband expansion qualifies as a public-private partnership under state law and clarifies state laws to encourage sharing “dark fiber” cables — underused lines run by one company. The measure also allows the Rural Economic Development Division to use grants to expand broadband and requires extensive reporting on efforts to extend broadband.
The bill is called the BRIGHT Futures Act — BRIGHT being an acronym for “Broadband, Retail online services, Internet of things, Grid power, Health care, and Training and education.” The bill refers to targeted areas for broadband expansion as “BRIGHT markets.”
No money is connected to the bill, but sponsors hope the legislation could make it easier to obtain federal grants to subsidize broadband expansion. But what about costs? Even a primary sponsor says companies don’t always see enough return on investment to justify the expense.
Advocates of the measure, such as Rep. John Szoka, a primary sponsor, aren’t wavering.
“We’ve got to get access out there,” said Szoka, R-Cumberland.
Costs, he says, are the biggest reasons private providers haven’t extended broadband to every household in the state.
To promote his argument, Szoka uses as an example Vick Family Farms, which has a sweet potato sales operation near Wilson in Nash County.
“This guy has got a worldwide market,” said Szoka. “He figured out how to package this stuff and ship it all over the place. But he’s got to have high-speed broadband.”
For the time being, the operation is using Greenlight, a municipal broadband service operated by the city of Wilson. Szoka says he fundamentally opposes a municipal broadband company extending its service and competing with private business, but it’s necessary for the business to grow.
“You’ve got entrepreneurs like this, farmers in rural areas who have devised new ways to get things to market, expand their markets,” Szoka said. “It’s not just buying stuff from Amazon. It’s encouraging small business to start in rural areas.”
People in rural areas have reasons for living outside cities.
“They are not stupid,” Tisdale said. “They are aware that there are tradeoffs, and yet they choose to live there anyway. Let’s not make those decisions and not impose our urban values on them.”
Such efforts could stifle innovation, she says.
“If we want Google to develop technology that is going to reach every home in America, then we don’t need to undermine their customer base by subsidizing rural broadband,” Tisdale said.
Szoka compared the broadband expansion effort to early 20th century efforts to build farm-to-market roads.
“It’s kind of like back in the ‘20s and ‘30s when the state undertook massive road-building operations so farmers could get their produce to market fresh, not by the time it’s rotted,” Szoka said.
Szoka cited other reasons to extend broadband. Many devices contain chips that can connect to the internet, such as home alarm systems and electronic devices.
The “Internet of things,” he calls it.
Utilities need the internet to better manage their grids. Wearable devices can monitor hypertension and other bodily functions, alerting users of potential health issues. Wi-Fi thermostats can help reduce electrical loads during peak periods and shave costs for consumers. Kids need the internet to do research for their homework.
Any taxpayer money spent as a result of such a bill, Berin Szoka says, should focus on stimulating private investment.
“You want the government to do the least that it needs to to stimulate private investment.
The bill is well-intended yet problematic.
“The problem is that this language [in the bill] is worded so broadly that it seems like it could mean not only that [running fiber so a private company could provide access to homes and businesses] but also funding government-run broadband or displacing private investment,” Berin Szoka said. “So that’s the critical distinction to draw. I would hope that they would consider focusing the state’s resources on trying to stimulate rather than replace private investment.”
Tisdale emphasized the earlier point that providers and consumers are moving away from land-based broadband to wireless service.
“Home broadband adoption seems to have plateaued,” a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center says. “It now stands at 67 percent of Americans, down slightly from 70 percent in 2013, a small but statistically significant difference which could represent a blip or might be a more prolonged reality.”
At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in “smartphone-only” adult users — people who own a smartphone they can use for internet access but don’t have traditional broadband service at home, the study shows. “Smartphone-only” adult users increased from 8 percent to 13 percent over the same period.
Berin Szoka, the TechFreedom president, said the future of broadband will require “a fiber backbone,” but that doesn’t mean fiber cables need to be connected to every house and business. A new 5G technology — faster the current 4G connections used by many cell phone companies — could provide service more efficiently, he said.
“What we’re using is a fixed wireless internet,” Metcalf said. He said a fiber-optic line is run to a cell tower, where an antenna is installed, sending out a wireless signal.
“You put a small antenna on the roof of the customer’s house,” Metcalf said. The technology provides 10MG per-second download and 1MG per-second upload speed. Metcalf said AT&T has tested the equipment and plans to activate the service this year. It will eventually go to 13,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina.
John Szoka, the lawmaker, said he’s trying to work with private industry providers in fine-tuning the bill.
“We want to make every clear that it’s not government in competition with any service provider or any company and that every company gets to compete in the marketplace,” he said.