Back in the 1890s, there weren’t mail carriers in the countryside. Farmers had to travel miles to pick up their mail from the nearest post office.
A number of congressmen pushed an idea called Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). It took years to push it through. Some argued that the cost of hiring all those mailpersons, gallivanting around the countryside, would bankrupt the Treasury. Others claimed that mail-order giants like Sears — yes, the Amazon of its day — would run local Mom-and-Pop stores out of business.
R.F.D. is mostly quaint today, but a new issue is sparking another urban-rural divide: broadband access. Lots of folks out in the country can’t get high-speed Internet.
For cable companies, telcoms and other providers, it’s not cost-effective to run the wiring out to the boondocks, where there aren’t that many potential subscribers per square mile. So, they’ve been taking their sweet time about it.
Folks in the country don’t like this. It’s not just a matter of watching YouTube videos or playing Fortnite. Increasingly, internet access is essential to access health-care information, apply for jobs or take classes. In some areas, medical specialists are using Skype or some similar link to make digital house calls. And businesses — including farms — rely more and more on broadband.
Hence, N.C. House Bill 431, the FIBER NC Act, which would allow local governments to invest in broadband infrastructure. The lines, once built, would then be leased to a private provider.
The bill cleared the House local government committee by a 13-9 vote. Predictably, the opposition came from cable companies and telcoms.
What’s interesting is that the normally monolithic House Republicans split over this one. Usually, the GOP is all for free enterprise and Getting the Government Off Our Backs. Many rural Republican legislators, however, defected to back the plan.
They had a point. In this case, Free Enterprise isn’t doing the job, so it’s time for governments to step in. There are plenty of precedents. New Deal programs brought electricity to rural counties. Private industry didn’t build farm-to-market roads; the state did.
North Carolina already has a GREAT program (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology), which is passing out $9.8 million in matching grants for broadband improvement in rural counties. But locals say that’s not nearly enough.
The FIBER NC Act has to jump hurdles in two other House committees, not to mention the Senate. With the current budget deadlock between legislative Republicans and Gov. Roy Cooper, there’s a real danger it could lie dormant.
It shouldn’t. Rural communities need broadband. Our legislators need to make this a priority.