Democratizing Rural Broadband: We’re Making It Harder Than It Needs To Be.

A serene field at sunrise with the dew dissipating and telephone polls in the background.

A serene field at sunrise with the dew dissipating and telephone polls in the background.

We have electricity and water to rural homes. There is no reason to not have broadband internet as well.

If right about now you’re thinking to yourself that it’s not that easy; you’re part of the problem. If those that stand in the middle really wanted to solve this problem and they really wanted to empower rural Americans, (let’s face it, it’s mostly farmers and farming communities), then it can be done. Politics, regulation, greed, whatever you want to call it, at the end of the day it’s bullshit.

I worked in IT and telecom for over 20 years. So let me tell you how this goes.

Electric Membership Corporations or Cooperatives, (EMC’s), own both the poles that carry power lines across this country as well as the conduit if it’s buried underground. They installed it. It’s their “right-of-way”. So if you want to use these poles or right’s of way, you have to pay them.

Competitive Local Exchange Carrier’s, (or CLEC’s), are your “phone companies”. This group has a mix of paying the EMC’s to “follow their path” as well as created their own path in some instances. If it is a path they created, then they also considered it their “right-of-way”… so if you want to ride along you have to pay.

Fine. I do think it’s only fair that since they invested the time, funding, effort, etc to build these paths, then they should be allowed to charge for access… even if they’re charging 20 times over for the same wooden pole for 50 years…whatever.

Some History

Power has become considered an essential utility, or an essential element of modern life, as it was declared in the 1920’s. BUT, who was going to pay to run these lines to all the homes? EMC’s were willing to do so in the 1920’s but could not justify the cost. Because of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover wasn’t about to use government funding to help with this. He believed in individuals helping themselves and using private charities to get by. It was not until the 1930’s under President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States government began economic relief under the New Deal which in its earliest form was relief for the agriculture industry and rural Americans…farmers.

Today, internet is still not seen as an essential element of modern life”… even though we pay our utilities bills…go figure… on line.

So the CLEC’s follow the EMC’s path but stop short going to the rural communities. Why? Same reason as the EMC’s in history; the can’t justify the cost for so few subscribers. This brings us back to the government getting involved to help out. But the government looks to help with installation… what about ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting? Because companies like Verizon eventually give up on the rural communities. In 2017 Verizon sent notification to 8,500 customers in 13 states basically saying, “thanks but you’re not worth it”.

But wait… there’s more.

These EMC’s and CLEC’s are still somewhat unionized from the 1950’s. So when the government economic relief comes to light…guess who says they want a piece of the pie in addition to their fees for “right-of-way” access! In my experience working with most of these unions, not only does it take forever to make any progress, but the craftsmanship and knowledge of today’s fiber splicing, terminating, SFP connectors, router installs and configurations, IP telephony, and much more is limited at best.

So you’re going to bring in a 3rd party to do the installs and won’t let our unions…? FINE! The price for “access” just tripled!

And here we sit today…in 2019…with no rural connectivity. Large CLEC’s have the lobbyists and funding to barrage the government to be awarded the economic relief for rural broadband but the funds are never used for that. Shit, they’re not even earmarked for it and can’t answer to where it went….AND THEN THE GOVERNMENT GIVES IT TO THEM AGAIN THE NEXT TIME!! I watched it play out right here in GA. I was on the rural broadband study commission in 2017 and was asked to testify to the state representatives, in front of local EMC’s and CLEC’s on this very issue. I watched Comcast get up, admit they don’t know where the $305M went, but it’s gone and there’s been little expansion to rural markets here in GA. Senator Steve Gooch actually said, “So you took $305M for a shitty network and just expanded a shitty network?”… YUP!

In October of 2018 I was invited to the USDA by Sonny Perdue to discuss this same topic but on a federal level as it pertains to the whole country. The story is not much different here.

Making It Happen

The CLEC’s or EMC’s have the paths to homes. If you want access, pay them. If they get greedy and stupid, award the funding to the thousands of small local fiber providers who give a shit about the rural communities and let them build it out and be the competitor to the large CLEC’s.

In urban environments the average cost to run fiber is $80k per mile. Yes it’s a lot of money but it’s also a lot of work. Boring under sidewalks and streets, watching out for power, gas, and water lines… all while trying not to disrupt traffic. Rural communities do not have these issues as extreme. There’s also a way to get assistance here. All the equipment required to dig a trench in the ground several feet to lay conduit… do you know who else has that kind of equipment?

Farmers.

I’m just going to go out on a limb here…so bear with me because this is going to sound really crazy… but what if you asked the farmers to help so as to lower the cost even more…? I’m betting if the trade-off was rural connectivity at a fair price; they’d do it.

What would really interest me is how much “economic relief” have we spent over decades only to make little progress? When are we going to start building on our own, one community at a time, and let the large EMC’s and CLEC’s sit idly by while we rebuild America’s infrastructure?

What’s it going to take to work together for the prosperity and development as a nation as a whole rather than one entity over another? I’m all for capitalism, but what happened to the patriotism of corporations within the protection and security of the very nation that provides the freedom to operate as they do?

Shit. We’re making it harder than it needs to be. Get it together.

Craig Ganssle