Let's Connect: Conversations About Improving Internet Access in North Carolina

The Community Broadband initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is teaming up with NC Hearts Gigabit and the North Carolina League of Municipalities for Let's Connect, a series of discussions about the need to improve Internet access in the state of North Carolina.

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These meetings will feature presentations from community leaders, local elected officials, and policy experts, as well as time for attendees to share their own stories and network with others interested in improving local connectivity. The purpose of these discussions is to raise awareness, amplify local stories, and inspire hope that change is possible in North Carolina. 

The meetings will take place on Jan 28-30, 2019. More information is below. For more details and to RSVP, please visit the event pages here.

Please help spread the word!

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New broadband policy brief on Tennessee's challenges

This week, ThinkTennessee in partnership with the Center for Rural Strategies released a new policy brief that addresses Tennessee’s challenges in increasing broadband internet access and affordability, particularly for rural and low-income families.

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According to the researchers, roughly a quarter of Tennessee’s rural families are without any kind of broadband access, while 23% of the total population reports that they lack a high-speed internet subscription.

“From the roads we drive on to the water we drink, public infrastructure powers our communities – and internet access is a key piece of that infrastructure,” said Shanna Singh Hughey, ThinkTennessee president. “Much like safe roads and clean water, all Tennesseans deserve access to the vast wealth of the internet.”

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The report advocates for flexible solutions that can empower local communities to improve broadband access and affordability while meeting their unique needs and context. Some options, such as digital literacy programs, help address low subscription rates, while others, like a coordinated road repair and broadband installation policy known as “dig once,” help reduce costs and create additional access for underserved areas.

“The diversity of our great nation doesn’t stop at its big cities – it lives in the rural areas and small towns, too. And while that diversity enriches our communities, it also makes solving challenges like broadband complex,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, Director of National Programs with the Center for Rural Strategies. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to internet access and affordability, but if we create more pathways for providers, invest in local programs and emphasize efficient infrastructure deployment, we can improve the lives of thousands of Tennesseans.”

The full brief is available here.


Liz Shaw: Keeping Apathy at Bay

We will ignite the 2018 National Rural Assembly with our firestarters - committed citizens who are modeling for the nation how we mend and strengthen the social and civic fabric of our country. They are lighting fires and sparking change, each in their own way and in their own place, and we had the pleasure of speaking with Liz Shaw recently. This is a guest post from Elena Kaye-Schiess reporting on the conversation.


Broadband access in rural communities is not an easy topic to wrap one’s mind around. We’ve all heard about net neutrality and the associated FCC regulations, but the topic is complex. Regulatory complexity aside, Liz Shaw has an authentic understanding of the issue, because she lives it every day.

Liz Shaw

Liz Shaw

Through a lifetime of organizing to fight for a better future for her community, her children, and her grandchildren, Liz knows the courage and leadership it takes to stand up for your values, and speak truth to power. She learned these values at a young age, from the time she called out her high school principal for trying to cancel a civil rights assembly she had helped organize, and in response, the principal called her to his office and tried to expel her.

From there, in her early 20s, Liz took her organizing skills to the federal level, bringing together a group of communities around the United States that had been targeted for a nuclear dump site by the Department of Energy. Together, they filibustered the DOE’s hearing in Asheville and convinced the DOE to scrap the project altogether. Winning that battle was a watershed moment in Liz’s career as an organizer, and firestarter. She learned firsthand how good organization can move the needle and bring about real change.

Today, Liz is organizing on behalf of equitable broadband access for communities across rural America.

“There are literally places all across not just southeastern Ohio, but all across rural America, that have dead zones – no landlines that work, no cell phone coverage, and first responders radios don’t work, so it’s like you’ve gone back on the prairie and you might as well use smoke signals,” according to Liz.

Unreliable connectivity affects Liz’s family, her friends, and her community on a daily basis. Liz shares stories of friends having to take their children to fast food restaurants to get their homework done:

 “Can you imagine an 11 year old researching on the mom’s cell phone while writing an essay in the middle of a fast food restaurant?”

Stories of families who communicate with walkie-talkies to stay in touch with one another, because their phones are so unreliable, and the story of someone dying on the soccer field because residents couldn’t summon an ambulance - the cell phones were out and the landlines didn’t work in the area.

“Companies are not required to come in and repair them on a timely basis, and rain showers can knock out landlines for a week at a time or more, because the connections in these transmission boxes are rusted through. People are without a way to summon not only ambulances, but also firefighters, and first responders of all kinds. Meanwhile, the first responders themselves are in danger because the spectrum that carries their radio signal also doesn’t work properly,” Liz goes on to say.

With the power of these stories, Liz began reaching out to advocacy groups like Common Cause and Public Knowledge, and she soon she had the attention of the FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who was doing a listening tour on the issue, but hadn’t yet visited Appalachia. Liz decided, “Well, she’s coming to Appalachia.”

Trying to plan a connectivity summit without connectivity is one obstacle, but imagining she might have a few months to plan and organize a convening and finding out she had only seven weeks until the FCC Commissioner would plan to arrive, was staggering. Unabated  and through tremendous leadership, perseverance, and organizing skills, Liz brought together the Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia Connectivity Summit in Marietta, Ohio, adjacent to West Virginia and Ohio counties, which have poor connectivity.

Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit  C redit: Citizens Connectivity Committee

Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit
Credit: Citizens Connectivity Committee

Delegations from 29 Appalachian counties attended the summit to share their stories, not only with the FCC Commissioner, but representatives from the offices of Ohio Governor Kasich, Senators Portman and Brown, Manchin and Moore-Capitoin West Virginia, as well as several Congress members, and many state legislators. The delegations included county commissioners, economic development advisors, hospital administrators, educators came and spoke, and their stories are now filed as public record. “She [Clyburn] literally had tears in her eyes over some of the stories, and that night she held a town hall, and that is when the citizens came out and told their stories to her.

Liz tells about the experience: “I saw so many great moments that day of Republicans and Democrats sitting together around the break room tables having coffee. Sitting out on the park benches in front of the building, having conversations during break, tagging up with each other in workshops and saying, ‘I need to get in touch with you because our county has the same issue your county has.’ It didn’t matter if people were Republicans or Democrats, it was people working together that day.”

As a result of that first connectivity summit, Liz’s organizing power has taken on a life of its own. People came away from that summit with momentum and ideas on how to conduct feasibility studies, how to connect with power players, and how to move the needle a little farther, because broadband is a nonpartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans have heard the stories and said the same thing – this is an issue of life or death. It is the education of our children, and the outmigration of brilliant young minds that can’t stay in the place they grew up because economic development and new business isn’t happening.

WHERE THE PARTIES STAND ON RURAL BROADBAND

This post is by Marty Newell, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly’s Rural Broadband Policy Group. It was originally published in the Daily Yonder.

Party platforms lay out where the party faithful stand and tell us what path each party might chart to help more rural Americans gain affordable access to an open Internet.

This is no small deal. In an increasingly interconnected and digitally reliant society, the Internet serves as the bridge for how we communicate, participate in our democracy, share information and ideas, and gain access to the most basic essentials of everyday life.

The Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly laid it out like this in their guiding principles:

Broadband is no longer a luxury but a vital service necessary to fully participate in the nation’s democracy, economy, culture, and society.

Rural areas generally have less access to all forms of media, not just broadband. Therefore, net neutrality, which establishes the principle of open and unfiltered access to information, is vitally important for rural communities. Democratic action, commercial innovation, and basic liberty demand no less.

Access alone does not guarantee that a rural community will thrive, but the lack of affordable high-speed Internet makes it unlikely. Tough times mean folks cut back, and the decline in broadband adoption rates across the countryside are very much tied to the high cost of relatively slow Internet connections. Rural communities are less likely to have competing providers and those providers too often don’t offer speeds that encourage business development.

The Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition went digging in the party platforms to see how the parties would address issues of access and openness. There is a division between the two major parties on the issue of net neutrality. However, the fact that both parties mentioned the important of high-speed access is a hopeful sign.

As Tim Karr of Free Press points out, “[w]hen it comes to getting everyone connected and online, there are some signs of accord. But neither party goes far enough to address the real obstacles to getting more people online.”

The private sector does not have a stellar record of timely technology deployment in rural America. Those of us who get our electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority or a rural electric cooperative know that public, quasi-public, and private partnerships are essential. That path made telephone service much more accessible. Neither technology is universally available, but it is clear that without the government lending a hand, much of rural America would be off all the grids. Private enterprise and the government need to work together to find a way to get more rural Americans online.

It will take innovative thinking, ruling out nothing, to get high speed internet to rural communities across the country. Let’s work to make sure that both parties remember that strong communities are connected communities, and that access to the economy requires access to the internet.