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Many Americans in Small Towns Still Struggling to Access Affordable Broadband

A few years ago, the Oklahoma town of Tuttle suddenly found itself without cable or internet service

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Americans, Towns, Broadband
While two dozen states have municipal broadband bans in place, a few are starting to repeal them. (T.Krug/VOA). VOA

A few years ago, the Oklahoma town of Tuttle suddenly found itself without cable or internet service after a local broadband provider went bankrupt, leaving behind unpaid bills to the power company.

“Tuttle, we believe, became the largest city in America without cable service or internet service,” said Tim Young, the town’s city manager.

Like the majority of cities in the U.S., Tuttle residents accessed broadband through private companies rather than through a city-run system. With the town of a few thousand growing quickly and attracting professionals from nearby Oklahoma City who were used to high-speed internet, Tuttle city officials began meeting with new private telecommunications companies to fill the gap.

According to Young, every one of them expressed the same concern: the population wasn’t big or dense enough to garner much of a profit.

Americans, Towns, Broadband
Kevin Beyer, general manager of Farmers, a century-old phone company, talks with Morrie, center, and Al Schacherer at the auto shop they run in Dawson, Minn., Nov. 19, 2013. Farmers laid 600 miles of fiber cable in 2011 with the help of $9.6 million in stimulus grants and loans. VOA

Scouted other networks

So Young said he and other city officials changed strategies and began taking tours of other Oklahoma cities that had set up municipal broadband networks, meaning the system was owned and operated by the town.

“We began to realize that this is something that we could do ourselves and began to go down that path,” he said, noting that no taxes or rates were increased to pay for the upstart loan provided by a local bank. “From my standpoint, I’ve been more surprised by how easy and simple it is to put the system in.”

Across the United States, many Americans in small towns and rural areas are still struggling to access affordable, quality broadband. As more and more services move online, many people are missing out on entertainment, educational, health care and professional opportunities.

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“One of the main reasons why the urban-rural disparity exists today in the private industry (is) because the big incumbent providers are naturally incentivized to build robust networks in high-density population areas, where they have a much greater chance of getting a return on their investment, versus building out a super robust network in a small town of 2,000,” said Tyler Cooper, editor at BroadbandNow, a data aggregation company based in Los Angeles.

In response to telecommunication providers’ complaints of high costs to serve more remote areas, the U.S. government has granted out hundreds of millions of dollars through bipartisan efforts to get fiber laid and more rural homes connected.

Frustrating results

The results have frustrated politicians and rural consumers alike. The digital gap remains, along with pervasive criticism that current FCC maps paint a misleading picture of how many Americans need assistance. These maps, created from self-reporting 477 forms provided by telecommunications providers, paint a picture where 21.3 million people, or 18 percent of the American population, lack access to broadband. In reality, observers of broadband access say that number is much higher.

Americans, Towns, Broadband
Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Andy Berke stands in front of an aerial image of Chattanooga, on the wall of his conference room, Nov. 17, 2014. Berke is a major promoter of the city’s municipal fiber optic network. VOA

“The Form 477 data allows providers to mark an entire census block as covered — potentially hundreds of homes — if even one of those homes is covered,” Cooper said.

Along with the federal government, state legislatures have attempted to tackle the digital divide, including passing legislation regulating municipal broadband. At the moment, more than two dozen states have limitations on city-run broadband — from restrictions on parameters to entire bans. While it is common in other countries for broadband to be provided through publicly owned utility services, U.S. conservatives have argued that government should play less of a role.

Arkansas, for example, passed a law in 2011 stating “a government entity may not provide, directly or indirectly, basic local exchange service.”

Earlier this year, the Arkansas Legislature unanimously voted to repeal that ban.

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“We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation, and [ranked] almost last in broadband [access],” Breanne Davis, a Republican state senator and co-sponsor of the bill, told Citylab earlier this year.

Cooper, of BroadbandNow, said that municipal broadband in rural communities in Arkansas, a state where a quarter of its residents are underserved, isn’t a guaranteed solution. In some cases, it has failed. He pointed to Wireless Philadelphia, which he says collapsed under the weight of massive overhead.

“A lot of state and city municipalities are not prepared to deal with the overhead that comes from actually maintaining and holding a fiber backbone. Turns out that’s a pretty big can of worms,” Cooper said. “It’s something that definitely has risks and is not just a utopian solution to the digital divide.”

At the same time, there are a large number of municipal-run broadband networks that appear to be succeeding. In the case of Tuttle, Young, the city manager, said excess revenue is being reinvested so that more rural homes can benefit.

Americans, Towns, Broadband
Paragould, Ark., set up one of the first municipal broadband systems in the United States. (T.Krug/VOA). VOA

‘Exceeded all expectations’

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, frequently touted as a shining example of quality municipal broadband, Mayor Andy Berke said the product “exceeded all expectations.”

“I don’t think the people had a true understanding of just how successful this would be,” Berke said, crediting the high-speed connection for Chattanooga’s low unemployment rate and bustling tech and innovation economy.

Even in Arkansas, a handful of towns that set up municipal broadband ahead of the ban say they have benefited from having it.

Americans, Towns, Broadband
Marcus Dowdy, director of Broadband Services for the city of Paragould, said residents “weren’t happy” with services previously provided by a private telecommunications company. In the early 1990s, the city sought to change that. (T.Krug/VOA). VOA

Paragould, a community of about 30,000, went into the cable business in the early 1990s, eventually including broadband and going into direct competition with a major private telecommunications company in town. Eventually, the city bought out the private company’s assets.

“The citizens weren’t happy with the offerings and the prices [of the other company],” said Marcus Dowdy, director of broadband services for Paragould Light Water and Cable.

Over the years, Dowdy said more and more Arkansas communities and co-ops have expressed interest in starting the process themselves.

“[Broadband] is going to become more of a utility,” Dowdy said.

Regardless of how successful future municipal broadband networks may be, Cooper said he can’t foresee a time when every house in America — no matter how remote — is eventually connected to a fiber network. In the end, there will be a combination of technology employed.

“It’s just too big of a project. There’s too much infrastructure involved,” Cooper said. (VOA)

Next Story

Nearly Three-Quarters of Young Americans Unfit to Serve in America’s Military

U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged Americans to enlist in the military

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Americans, Unfit, Military
FILE - Matt Elam, center, competes in a US Marine pull-up contest while Marine recruiters watch. VOA

As he reveled in the huge display of military might during last week’s Independence Day celebration on the National Mall, U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged Americans to enlist in the military.

“To young Americans across our country, now is your chance to join our military and make a truly great statement in life, and you should do it,” Trump said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House the following day, Trump predicted that his display would boost military enlistment. “Based on that, we’re going to have a lot of people joining our military,” he said.

However, with a 2016 Department of Defense report finding that nearly three-quarters of young Americans are unfit to serve in America’s military, Trump’s encouragement and military display may not be enough to reverse declining military recruitment.

Americans, Unfit, Military
President Donald Trump applauds during an Independence Day celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial, July 4, 2019, in Washington. VOA

According to the Department of Defense, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force met their recruiting goals in 2018, but the Army, the military’s largest branch, fell more than 6,500 recruits short – about 8% below its target of 76,500.

A 2018 report by Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired military professionals that makes policy recommendations to increase the percentage of young Americans eligible to serve in the military, found that 71% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to meet all of the basic requirements for military service.

The biggest disqualifier is obesity, with roughly 31% of American youths disqualified because they are overweight. Other factors explaining the shortage of eligible recruits are inadequate education, criminal history and drug use. According to Army Major Gen. (Ret.) Allen Youngman, a member of Mission: Readiness, almost 25% of high school graduates are unable to pass the basic military entrance exams, which not only disqualifies them from technical positions within the service but also from military service as a whole.

Not only is the pool of eligible recruits shrinking, but the number of young Americans interested in military careers is dropping as well, the report found. This is partly the result of a strong national economy, since plentiful civilian jobs may make military careers seem less appealing, according to Youngman.

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As the number of people serving in the military declines, the problem is likely to get worse. “The number of what we call influencers in a young person’s life – people who may have had military service of their own who would serve as a role model or even encourage a young person to consider military service – is down because the number of persons who participate in the military over the years has gone down,” said  Youngman. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command reports that 79% of recruits have a relative who also served in the military.

Relaxing education or criminal history standards in order to enlarge the recruiting pool in light of the obesity issue isn’t an option, said General Youngman. “The position today is that the standards are the standards. We’ve just got to work harder to find young people who can meet them.”

However, the trends are not encouraging.

By age two, 14% of American children are already considered obese, and the proportion of overweight or obese children increases with age, the Mission: Readiness report finds. In the 16-19 age group, 42% of Americans are overweight. These statistics carry over into adulthood, with 70% of overweight teens becoming overweight or obese adults.

Americans, Unfit, Military
This Tuesday, April 3, 2018 photo shows a closeup of a beam scale in New York. VOA

The problem is especially acute in southern states, which provide a disproportionately large percentage of military recruits, but also have some of the highest rates of obesity in the nation.

Efforts are under way to improve the health of America’s youth.

As an example, Youngman cited the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides improved nutrition guidelines for school lunches. The program is the latest in a series of initiatives beginning with the National School Lunch Program in 1946.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the School Lunch Program started right after World War II as a national security program,” General Youngman said. “There was such concern about the overwhelming numbers of young people who were not qualified for military service in World War II because they grew up during the Great Depression and they had all sorts of nutrition issues that resulted in health issues later on.”

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In the wake of the Great Depression, the goal of the School Lunch Program was to ensure that kids got enough calories from their school lunches. Today, calories are in general much easier to come by, so modern school lunch programs focus on helping students make healthier food choices. A 2014 study of 1,030 elementary-school children found that students selected 23% more fruit for their lunches and ate 16% more vegetables after the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Programs that seek to improve nutrition for school-aged children as well as encourage active lifestyles are important not only for military readiness, but also for society as a whole.

“There are some bright spots out there, but as a nation we still have a long way to go,” Youngman said. (VOA)