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Slow internet speed stalls state's rural economic growth

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The N.C. League of Municipalities just told us something we already know. Maybe this time more people will listen.

The league, which represents the state's cities and towns, released a report Wednesday that says more than 600,000 rural North Carolinians lack broadband-speed internet access in their communities. Actually, the number may be much greater. 

Many telephone and satellite internet access companies - the only internet providers available in many rural communities - still label internet speeds of 4 to 10 megabits per second as broadband. But in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as a minimum of 25 megabits per second. Given the size of data files typically sent and received over the internet, that's a realistic upgrade. In the era of high-definition video and massive data files loaded up and down from cloud servers, anything less is almost impossible to work with.

In most cities, broadband speed isn't an issue. Several communications companies, including Verizon and Google, have rolled out "gigabit" service, data transfer at a billion bits per second. 

That kind of speed makes it easy to run a high-tech business that feeds on vast quantities of data. And the availability of that speed means that companies that use that much data are forced to locate in the state's urban areas.

We've heard plenty of stories from young entrepreneurs who wanted to establish a business in rural areas in this region, but when they learned how slow the internet service was, they were forced to set up shop in Fayetteville. We're sure that this is a common story across the state and it's one of the key reasons why the economic development of North Carolina's rural areas lags so far behind our cities.

State Rep. John Szoka, a Fayetteville Republican, took a careful look at the problem and concluded that government needed to get involved. 

While the conservative lawmaker is wary of government providing services that compete with the private sector, it became clear to him that the private sector wasn't going to make huge fiber-optic cable investments in places where there were only a few likely subscribers per mile. 

Urban density is the key to profitability in cable and broadband systems. Szoka led the way in the creation of the BRIGHT Futures Act, a measure that would bring state assistance to rural areas for the extension of broadband. His bill wasn't trying to displace private providers, but rather to help create the infrastructure that would allow them to operate in rural areas.

The measure passed the House but when Fayetteville Sen. Wesley Meredith sponsored it in the Senate, it ran into a wall of opposition from the more conservative ideologues that inhabit that chamber. It's parked in the Senate Rules Committee, the graveyard of legislation good and bad that didn't win Senate leadership's favor. And that's a shame, because it's stalling economic development in many of this state's rural areas, where poverty is far more prevalent than in the broadband-friendly cities.

We hope the League of Municipalities will push hard to revive the BRIGHT Futures Act and get it through the Senate. What Szoka's legislation will do is analogous to the federal Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s, which brought electricity to the nation's farmlands and rural communities and sparked economic prosperity. 

High-speed internet access is the 21st century equivalent of electricity, a fundamental public utility that every entrepreneur needs to grow a successful business. If our elected leaders don't understand that, we've got a big problem. It's hard to think of a business that's not connected to the internet today in one way or another, and if the service is slow, the business will be less profitable and less able to grow.

If North Carolina is going to create economic success for all of its workers, we need to have fast internet service across the state. Why can't our senators see that?

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