Expand Rural Broadband Without Burdening Rural People

Woman using a laptop

The pandemic has shone a bright light on the need for expanded rural broadband, and I’m grateful that more than $140 million in state and federal funding has been awarded to a Fortune 100 cable provider and others in the state to connect unserved and underserved rural residents in North Carolina. As this grant funding, which was announced in December, creates a new market for broadband providers in rural communities, we must reject efforts by for-profit special interests that would lead to higher costs for North Carolina’s rural consumers.

Rural communities have long-awaited high-speed connections because for-profit cable providers have largely been unwilling to invest in broadband infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. Despite this, electric cooperatives have supported efforts to close the digital divide by exploring local solutions and facilitating expansion of access to broadband providers to utility poles quickly and at a fair rate.

Recently, due to a push from a Fortune 100 company that received federal funding, a bill has been filed in the North Carolina legislature that would shift costs to “make ready” utility poles for new broadband infrastructure to electric co-ops and their members. Should this bill pass, special interests would receive more funding for their shareholders at the expense of rural consumers – leading to higher electric rates for local electric co-op members and further burdening the very people who expanded broadband is intended to help.

This proposed policy is wrong. We must not move money from the pockets of rural people into those of Fortune 100 shareholders. Not-for-profit co-ops – and their members – should not be expected to subsidize broadband deployment costs, especially after more than $140 million in funding has been awarded to a for-profit cable provider for broadband expansion.

This policy also breaks precedent. In January, the Federal Communications Commission declined to issue the cost-shifting rules that the special interests seek, noting that the issue is complex and requires more thoughtful consideration.

It is in the best interest of rural people and communities to ensure that new broadband funding is applied as intended to cover expanded access, and that rural co-op members are not burdened with unfair costs.

As not-for-profit, community-owned organizations, electric cooperatives remain focused on keeping costs as low as possible for members and supporting efforts that bring opportunity and prosperity to our communities. Deploying broadband is no exception.

We look forward to seeing broadband access extend to unserved areas in North Carolina. We will continue to work with policy makers and those who are deploying broadband to ensure that access is expanded to our entire state, while advocating against policy changes that could burden rural consumers with unfair costs.

Article cross-posted from WRAL by Nelle Hotchkiss, Senior Vice President and COO of North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, and Board Member at the N.C. Rural Center.