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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

Giving Back: Here’s How to Help Those In Need After Natural Disasters

Te aftermath of Natural Disasters is the worst. People lose property and life and that is why you need to help them out

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Natural disasters
A new poll revealed that nearly three-quarters of Americans see natural disasters worsening as time goes on and those surveyed feel that it’s due to global warming. Pixabay

How many times have you been sitting in front of the TV watching your favorite show and then all of a sudden, it interrupted by a “Breaking News” story? Within the past year, it’s happened all too often… 

“Massive tsunami strikes Hawaii leaving 57 dead and the number is steadily rising” 

Or

“Hurricane Shawn continues to wreak havoc in the Carribean, leaving millions of natives homeless”

We’ve all seen these types of “Breaking News” stories and felt so much empathy and sympathy for those affected by those natural disasters, yet we sit warm and cozy on our comfortable couches just shaking our heads in disbelief. 

It’s tough seeing lives lost due to natural disasters but unfortunately, these things happen all the time. A new poll revealed that nearly three-quarters of Americans see natural disasters worsening as time goes on and those surveyed feel that it’s due to global warming…

As you watch the news and see the millions of families walking around in despair, you feel compelled to help them… So what do you do? You grab an old box and start loading it with clothes you don’t wear anymore and shoes you no longer can fit. In your mind, you’re thinking you’re doing the right thing and helping but in doing that, you’re actually not helping at all… you’re actually making things harder for relief workers.

Natural disasters
Donating clothes and cell phones can be helpful for people who have suffered from natural disasters. Pixabay

There is this thing called the “disaster after the disaster” and this is when post-disaster donations become so overwhelming that they become more of a burden than a help, more so because people donate things that can’t be used, according to npr.org

In an effort to help, people will go in their pantries and grab canned goods and other non-perishable items that have expired or foods that have already been opened… those are items that are being donated to those in need and those are also items that pose health risks and cannot be given to anyone. So relief workers then have to sort through those and dispose of them, taking them away from helping the families in need.

If you feel compelled to help, please do! Families are still trying to recover from natural disasters that have long gone and they need everyone’s help. But if you want to donate, first take a look at the items that will be most beneficial to those in need.

How to Help Those in Need

Host a Community Food Drive

When natural disasters strike an area, the families affected have lost everything they owned and one of the best ways you can help them is to host a food drive. You want to send non-perishable items like canned goods, dried goods, bottled water, dehydrated foods, and even water filters. When donating these items also be sure to check the dates on them… just because non-perishable foods have a longer shelf life, doesn’t mean they don’t have an expiration date.

Get with your local churches and businesses to see about coordinating a drive. Once you have all donated items, you can package everything up and deliver it to larger organizations that can have the packages delivered to the areas that need help.

Donate Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning supplies is something that not too many people think about when it comes to helping with natural disasters but what people forget is that some homes are actually able to be salvaged with a little elbow grease and cleaning supplies. Things like gloves, masks, bleach, and paper towels and rags are going to go a long way for those who can salvage their home.

For those affected, you have to remember, a major part of a new start is also a clean one.

Money natural disasters
Monetary donations are always going to be the best way to help those in need after natural disasters. Pixabay

Donate Cell Phones

You’re probably thinking, what is a cell phone going to do during this time? Well, what you don’t know is that donating cell phones is going to help those in need tremendously. When a lot of these natural disasters hit, cell phones are the last things on their minds… their main concern is to stay alive!

By donating cell phones, they will at least have a device to use once they get back on their feet and won’t have to buy one. If you hadn’t noticed, cell phones are very expensive, so imagine the financial relief you’ll be providing them by donating a cell phone. 

Maybe you have a few extra cell phones at home and if you don’t, you can buy pre-owned cell phones that will give those affected a way to communicate with their loved ones to let them know they’re okay. The thing about pre-owned cell phones is that they’re in great condition and they’re reasonably priced.

Consider getting with your local churches, businesses, and non-profit organizations to host a cell phone drive. For reasonably priced pre-owned cell phones, visit glyde.com/buy

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Donate Money

Monetary donations are always going to be the best way to help. Organizations like the American Red Cross and Save the Children are always accepting monetary donations to put towards families in need after natural disasters. Check with your local non-profit organizations to see how you can help those in need.