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There are a host of reasons why North Carolina has two distinct economies, one rich and the other in varying stages of poverty. It’s largely an urban-rural divide, with most of our big cities enjoying robust economic growth and workers drawing good salaries while most of our rural areas haven’t seen success since the textile mills failed and tobacco farming began its slow death.
But it’s not just a story of our failure to replace those once-robust rural industries with the Next Big Thing. The problem is that we never created a path for the Next Big Thing to follow into our rural communities.
Most of our cities are well wired with the digital highway that 21st-century business and industry require — high-speed internet service. But in small towns and across the countryside, internet service too often is barely faster than it was in the early days of dial-up service. There’s no way anyone can run a date-intense business on the slow-crawling DSL service that’s often the only option in small towns.
Although the state has launched a few initiatives to extend fast “gigabit” service to rural communities, the efforts haven’t paid off in any large way. There’s a reason for that: Our lawmakers have been unwilling to recognize that fast internet service is no longer a luxury for gamers and movie buffs, but rather is an essential public utility that should be regulated and encouraged.
Instead, they’ve left internet service largely in the private sector, even banning municipalities from offering internet access to residents. And internet access companies aren’t willing to spend what it takes to wire up small towns or rural areas where they might have only three or four customers on every mile of cable. That’s not profitable.
Yet, we would argue that for 21st-century living and commerce, internet access is as fundamental as the electricity that runs our computers. In a sense, we’re reliving the American scenario of nearly a century ago, when city-dwellers all had electricity and rural residents didn’t. It took the congressional passage of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to change that, providing the grants and loans to extend electric service out into even fairly remote rural areas across the country. It’s time to revive that law for internet service. Otherwise, the rural-urban divide will only grow greater.
In his constituent newsletter this week, Harnett County Republican state Rep. David Lewis acknowledged the divide and resolved to do something about it. Broadband, he said is “my top priority for the 2019 session.”
Lewis says previous government broadband initiatives have fallen short because they “have been consistently awarded to service providers that fail to make necessary investments in infrastructure.”
Now, he says, it’s time for government to take a more active role. “In order to get fiber out to people across the state,” he writes, “governments (federal, state, county, local) should be able to invest in fiber infrastructure, and in turn, lease them to the service providers who sell access to the consumer. We have to do something so that the people of this state can be connected to our ever-evolving world.”
Thank you, Rep. Lewis. We’ve waited a long, long time for our lawmakers — especially those in our legislative majority — to recognize the problem. Our state’s rural areas will continue to face depressing economic prospects until government gets involved with expanding our fiber-optic infrastructure and making fast internet service available to whoever wants and needs it.
In these days of “smart” homes and workplaces, that’s just about all of us. And in this era of “cloud” storage, every business, large or small, needs to have those high-speed connections.
We hope Lewis’ colleagues in the House and Senate agree.