The most daunting obstacle for rural communities trying to achieve universal broadband access is a lack of understanding. On the community level, there is a lack of understanding among local populations about the importance of becoming digitally literate and the benefits that broadband can bring to their everyday lives. On the local leadership level, there is a lack of understanding by elected officials who fail to see the fundamental role that broadband can play in bettering their constituents’ future. And finally, on the federal level there is a lack of recognition of the depth of the digital divide and the reasons it exists, resulting in a lack of urgent action. Communities must identify and communicate their own needs by getting involved in the decision-making spheres, such as state broadband task forces and advisory committees, to shore up their shortfalls into productive policy action. These were the findings of a listening session held by the Center for Media Justice and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative at this year’s National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, Minnesota.
(Note: With legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this week’s Dispatch is the first in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different critical policy areas across the fifty states.)
In a last minute amendment to its heavily controversial state budget bill, the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance added a provision that would greatly reduce broadband access for schools, libraries, and university researchers. The target of this harmful proposal is WiscNet, a not-for-profit Internet Service Provider cooperative that offers inexpensive and flexible broadband service to anchor institutions, provides online learning resources for public schools and libraries, and allows university researchers fast, inexpensive data upload services unavailable from private providers. This proposal by Governor Walker would force WiscNet to return $39 million in federal funds that would be used to lay fiber-optic cables across Wisconsin and would sever the relationship between WiscNet and the University of Wisconsin, which founded WiscNet over 20 years ago. In addition to negatively impacting the University’s connectivity and research capacity, the loss of this funding means that fewer rural community members would have immediate access to broadband.
After multiple attempts in the past four legislative sessions, large telecommunications providers have finally succeeded at preventing municipalities from facilitating community broadband services in North Carolina. Despite expressing concerns that industry-supported legislation would result in poorer service for communities, Governor Bev Perdue failed to veto House Bill 129, allowing it to become law without her signature. The law is particularly detrimental in rural areas, where the private sector has refused to provide service because they do not see profits.
As political battles over budgets and deficits continue to rage in D.C. and statehouses across the nation, the dominant rhetoric continues to be that the vast majority of the nation must bear the burden of “shared sacrifices” – fewer teachers, hospitals, and other social services – while the wealthy continue to enjoy substantial tax cuts. In other words, working families have to cope with a financial crisis created by Wall Street while those that got us here in the first place pay no price.
Despite the clear need for states to support community efforts to create jobs by investing in critical infrastructure, right-wing legislation in North CarolinaandSouth Carolinaseems to want to take away the people’s rights to build broadband in their communities. The bills – HB3508/SB483 in South Carolina andHB129/SB87 in North Carolina – place onerous requirements for community-based broadband networks, threatening their existence and economic growth. As our states continue to deal with the fallout of the Great Recession, broadband build-out is the critical infrastructure investment needed to put Americans back to work and rebuild prosperity.