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Getting broadband to the 'last mile' a goal with no clear path

COA-Distance Learning

Broadband internet enables distance learning for education and many other web-based services sought by residents, businesses and agencies in rural areas, which are often unable to access high-speed internet.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Kind of like Mom or apple pie, people broadly support the concept of “last mile” internet connections, which would help digital have-nots keep pace in the 21st century.

But where do those “last miles” need to go? What should they look like? Who should pay for them, and how much?

The state's Broadband Infrastructure Office and its director, Jeff Sural, work on those questions daily, and explored them in an interview with The Daily Advance on Thursday. He also shared some of the concerns of broadband advocate and former Roper Mayor Bunny Sanders, who was interviewed for a story in last Sunday's Advance.

Sural also defended the state's new GREAT Program, which Sanders blasted for potentially paying out grants for slow, outdated internet speeds.

Sural readily acknowledges the state needs better data on who truly has broadband access. The state's Broadband Plan states North Carolina has a 93-percent deployment rate for broadband, a number that assumes access for an entire Census block even if only one household has broadband. He discussed the issue in-depth in a recent story for WRAL's TechWire.

Bad maps are a problem because federal funding for broadband is based on whether an area is considered unserved, he explained. That's prompted BIO's long-running effort to assemble its own coverage maps from a slew of sources, he said. Those sources include inviting state residents to submit speed reports through BIO's website, infrastructure data from state agencies such as the Department of Transportation, and limited data from internet companies themselves, he explained.

BIO's mapping efforts are also getting a boost, Sural explained, through a multi-state partnership with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The NTIA is partnering with North Carolina and seven other states to update broadband availability maps to better inform policymakers, according to its website.

When the state clearly identifies who's under-served, how should it help them? Sural called for the state to continue working with private providers to expand access, including by helping them better use existing state infrastructure, such as communication towers, to lower the cost of establishing service. Towers and other tall structures can be used for wireless broadband.

While not calling for the state to fund and install its own fiber-optic cables or other network infrastructure, Sural said that should be an option for local governments, who could install their own fiber networks and lease bandwidth to ISPs.

Notably, the state Broadband Plan supports that, as does the N.C. League of Municipalities, both of which have called for giving local governments clear authority to fund broadband infrastructure.

One small step towards better broadband access in rural communities is the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program, or GREAT Program, that provides $10 million in grants to private providers looking to serve economically distressed, “Tier 1” counties.

Last week, Sanders blasted that plan for potentially funding projects providing service as slow as 10 Megabits per second, versus the FCC minimum of 25 Mbps for broadband. Local state lawmakers similarly commented that 10 Mbps was an obsolete standard.

Sural said he shared those concerns, but said 10 Mbps projects may not make the cut for funding. The GREAT Program doesn’t have enough money to fund all requests, and 10 Mbps projects will be slightly penalized, he noted.

Sural also said BIO couldn't yet release the details on the 30 applications it received earlier this month, though he said one application has been disqualified for not serving a Tier 1 area.

Another person planning for the future of broadband is Jean Davis, CEO of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina. MCNC is a private nonprofit that owns 3,700 miles of internet fiber and provides the large bandwidth needed by all of North Carolina's public universities, community colleges, local school districts, and other anchor institutions. It also allows ISPs to tap into its network for local service, offering the middle mile needed before last mile connections can happen.

Davis said MCNC's network is essentially the “interstate highway system” for internet in North Carolina, and one of its founding principles is equity in access – educational institutions in Pasquotank and other rural communities should have speeds as fast as those in urban communities, she said.

Davis also said its customers' bandwidth needs continue growing “exponentially” year after year; MCNC handles terabytes of data daily and regularly invests to grow that capacity and “future-proof” its network, she added.

While MCNC isn't a last-mile provider, it faces one of their fundamental challenges: it's “bloody expensive” to install fiber, Davis said. She explained MCNC can install fiber more cost-effectively than other providers, but it still costs about $50,000 a mile or more, depending on if fiber is going through very wet or rocky soils.

Fortunately, however, she said technology is also advancing rapidly and dropping in price, making it easier to provide higher speeds. While she stopped short of recommending minimum speeds that ISPs should offer, she noted that Canada is focused on 50 Mbps – twice the FCC's current broadband threshold.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has set a goal of 50 Mbps for 90 percent of homes and businesses by 2021, according to its website.

Davis also supported local governments being able to own and use their own fiber networks, which can not only help last-mile service, but support “smart city” initiatives to enhance government services.

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