The need for fast, reliable broadband is stronger than ever before. Counties and towns across North Carolina are taking action to improve broadband for constituents, increasingly through a Public-Private Partnership model. This article describes why the need for broadband has become such a paramount issue, how a Public-Private Partnership model can work, and examples of North Carolina communities which are benefiting from this approach.
Why Broadband is such a Paramount Issue
Internet access is increasingly being compared to water and electric service as a fundamental right. A brief summary of driving factors:
- North Carolina students require access to the internet for conducting research, accessing the school’s online tools, and downloading their textbooks. In some areas of our state, we see 20% of homes do not have a broadband connection. This Digital Divide creates a ‘homework gap’.
- Healthcare access is increasingly done online, from healthcare records to researching a doctor, to online patient visits. Our rural citizens may have to take an entire day off work to visit a doctor, and as a result, may not go. Access to online healthcare can help.
- We live in an era of user-generated content creation. Social media posts, pictures, videos we take on our smartphones – they are all user-generated content uploaded to the internet. Anyone who has uploaded 1000 pictures, or a 2 GB video file, knows that upload speed can means minutes or hours, depending on your service.
- Businesses use the Cloud more than ever before. Instead of files transferred across a company LAN to servers down the hall, they are sent to cloud servers. Businesses are increasingly dependent on broadband connections, and symmetrical access is a key component.
- Gigabit internet has shown North Carolina what is possible. New entrants like Google Fiber and Ting are setting a high bar, and the municipal networks in Wilson and Salisbury are great role models. NorthState, Riverstreet, Spectrum, and some of the incumbent telcos are also taking action. Even wireless ISPs can offer gigabit speeds. Open Broadband is rolling out fixed-wireless gigabit access in each community we enter.
One thing is clear: where there is broadband competition, speeds go up and prices go down. Unfortunately, many locations in North Carolina fall outside of these competitive service areas and may have no access to 25 Mbps broadband, or they only have one choice. Satellite, DSL, and cell phone hotspots are not cutting it.
Counties and towns across North Carolina are increasingly hearing from concerned citizens wanting access to affordable broadband. By law (HB129), NC government entities are essentially prohibited from launching new ISP service directly to residents (Wilson and Salisbury are grandfathered in existing footprints). So what’s a county or town to do?
Counties and towns are increasingly issuing RFIs and RFPs to attract new ISPs. At Open Broadband we’ve participated in several RFI/RFPs, including Wayne County, Alexander County, City of Laurinburg, Chatham County, and Orange County. Persons County, the SWC Commission, Highlands, and Cullowhee are a few more examples. We’ve even seen a neighborhood HOA in Chatham County issue an RFP. There have been so many over the last 2 years we can’t list them all!
How a Public-Private Partnership Model Can Work
When a county or town wants to engage with an ISP to improve broadband access, the first step is to determine desired outcomes. The top priority we’ve seen in North Carolina RFI/RFPs has been increasing broadband availability, covering areas which do not have a 25 Mb broadband provider. Other desired outcomes include educational opportunities, economic development objectives, faster internet options, and a competitive entrant to “shake things up” and spur a positive competitive reaction from other ISPs.
One successful model has been a Private Investment, Public Facilitation approach. This is one of the approaches recommended by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and we’ve seen successful examples of this in North Carolina. This model typically includes:
- Making public real estate assets like towers, building rooftops, fiber, and conduit available.
- Sharing GIS information on these assets.
- Streamlining the permitting and inspection processes, such as one-touch-make-ready on pole attachments, and a dig-once policy on buried fiber.
- Providing an economic development incentive to attract ISP investment.
Open Broadband recently conducted a Broadband Feasibility Assessment for Alexander County in which we recommended this approach.
This partnership model focuses on attracting private company investment and minimizing the cost to the county/town. The ISP invests capital to deploy broadband, and the partner community seeds the effort with a small economic development incentive. This partnership approach results in very low risk to the county/town, and a modest public cost.
Examples of Broadband Public-Private Partnerships in North Carolina
A highly visible example of this approach was the attraction of Google Fiber to Charlotte and the Raleigh/Durham area. Charlotte Hearts Gigabit, a community advocacy group of which we are a part, summarized the Google Fiber Checklist in a series of blog posts. The Checklist included:
- Information about existing infrastructure: utility poles, conduit, and water, gas, and electricity lines.
- Access to existing infrastructure. In order to avoid duplicating poles and/or digging up streets, Google asked for the ability to access and lease existing infrastructure.
- Help to make construction speedy and predictable. Google requested an efficient and predictable permit and construction process appropriate for a project of this size.
Ting Internet is another example in Holly Springs. By leasing town-owned fiber for its backbone, Ting has built out a fiber-to-the-premise network throughout much of Holly Springs and has started offering symmetrical gigabit Internet access to homes and businesses. As reported by CLIC, “key factors in Ting’s decision to invest were the town’s willingness to lease excess fiber in its backbone and adopt best practices. Among other things, the town offered efficient government processes, access to information and facilities, and facilitation and support—all of which boosted Ting’s confidence in the community as an investment opportunity.”
Open Broadband is following this approach and has projects in Gaston County, Wayne County, Stanly County, and previously mentioned Alexander County. In Belmont NC we’ve worked with the city to provide free public Wi-Fi along Main Street downtown, service to their Police Department, many city buildings, and a gigabit internet equipped innovation center – TechWorks. The investment is being made by Open Broadband, but Belmont and TechWorks are partnering in the effort. Mount Olive is fast approaching as our next deployment of this model.
For more information on Public-Private Partnerships for better broadband, we highly recommend the following resources:
- The NC Broadband Infrastructure Office, creators of the state broadband plan. They have an exceptional staff providing support for all communities in our state.
- The Coalition for Local Internet Choice. A national organization with a local division (CLIC-NC), they have excellent resources for public-private partnerships.
- NC Hearts Gigabit is a non-profit organization in which we are involved that convenes regular meetings across the state to share best practices and promote the universal availability of affordable high-capacity internet to create thriving local communities. Our first conference will be April 20 at the Rural Center in Raleigh.