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Paul T. O’Connor: Internet deserts persist

Writer

Paul T. O’Connor

RALEIGH – Shortly after online dating appeared, a cartoon poked fun at the anonymity they afforded. The caption, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog,” ran below a sketch of a dog at a keyboard.

The world realized that if the internet could help a mutt get a date it could also provide work opportunities. People just needed good Internet service.

As many rural communities stagnate economically and many rural Americans say they don’t want to live where the jobs are, in urban areas, the Internet offers a solution. People can work remotely, either as employees or entrepreneurs.

But the hang-up in North Carolina’s rural areas and towns is often the lack of first-rate, state-of-the-art Internet service.

Susan Crawford, a noted writer on connectivity issues, wrote of the promise that Google Fiber offered several years ago with its experiment in bringing ultra-high speed service to customers. Overhead costs stalled that experiment, however. Labor costs to build out a fiber optic system in densely populated urban areas are astronomical. Forget about rural areas.

Private companies are not going to make such infrastructure investments when the payoff is 10 years or more in the future. Across America, some local officials foresaw this problem a decade ago and initiated municipal internet projects. Wilson was a leader in doing so. (Salisbury also installed a system.)

That effort, however, was seen as government intrusion into private business, and the 2011 General Assembly banned such public-private partnerships. So most communities don’t have publicly owned utilities providing internet service and they don’t have the kind of high-speed networks needed to draw jobs, either. The private sector has not stepped in.

This year, the legislature passed a bill authorizing a technology, called small cell wireless, that avoids some of those costs. Such technology has shortcomings, Crawford wrote, resulting from the limitations of Wi-Fi signals.

Crawford suggests creating public utilities to build the infrastructure in towns and counties. Using public bonds, the payback could be stretched out over 10 or more years. Private companies could then lease those lines to serve customers.

This year, House Bill 68 would have legalized public-private partnerships for broadband service, but it did not pass. The major corporations that now control the internet service-provider industry don’t want that competition. The legislative leadership sided with the companies even though economic development in their towns is stagnant.

No doubt, the opponents of such public-private partnerships have some eloquent argument about the evils of big government and the dangers of public indebtedness.

In the meantime, jobs go elsewhere, businesses don’t get started, small towns stagnate and a lot of young people move to the big city where there is opportunity.

Even a dog knows that isn’t right.

Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.

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