The third week in April of 2018, I was fortunate to be part of a group gathered in the hopes of sharing information, ideas, and plans to achieve better broadband in the state of North Carolina.
We go to conferences to be with people who think like we do. When you get together with your tribe, it energizes you. People talk your language. They value the same things that you do. Sometimes conferences come up with ideas that lead to change.
I came back feeling like there were lots of people who believe what I believe. None of the people at the conference needed to be convinced of the importance of high-quality broadband in North Carolina's future. They were all trying to understand how they could make it happen. They also understood almost to a person that most of us do not have competition in broadband. Usually, we have a choice of one provider and often their offerings are designed more for entertainment than for business usage.
I love the analogy given by Grant Goings, the city manager, from Wilson, NC. Wilson for those who do not know built their own fiber network only to have the state legislature try to make it illegal. While they finally got grandfathered, lobbyists made it impossible for other cities to do what Wilson has done.
Grant told us to imagine that we lived on private dirt toll road owned by a company. He said to think about going to the private company and begging them to pave your road only to have them say no because it would not make them more money. Then he said suppose you went out and built your own superhighway right beside the dirt toll road only to have the state legislature tell you that you couldn't drive on it and had to keep driving on the dirt road. Those are the roadblocks Wilson had to overcome. I think we were told that 650 technology jobs have come to town in the last year. They credit their fiber network and competitively priced fast Internet access.
This conference was all about helping communities figure out ways to build their own fiber superhighways so that their citizens will not be left behind as cities get better and better connections to the Internet. The important thing to remember is that those communities who work to build their own community networks often end up with better connectivity than cities around them. That means this is not a battle that rural communities have lost yet. It is battle that will be lost unless people mobilize and demand their leaders takes steps to bring fiber to their communities. It does not take forever to get fiber. Our company built 23 miles of fiber in Bozeman, Montana in six months.
Just as the Interstate Highway system and the railroads before it created winners and losers, the world of fiber is going to leave communities behind. Places like Danville, Virginia jumped on the fiber bandwagon over a decade ago. They had been hit by the perfect storm of a collapse of the furniture, tobacco, and textile industries that defined their economy. Their electric utility built a fiber network and now Danville has a thriving economy with far more technology jobs than in the past.
I am lucky to work in a job that aligns with my passion for better broadband with my job description. The company that I work for has been helping communities take control of their economic future by working towards community controlled networks for twenty-five years. It is easy to wake up in the morning and go to work doing something that can make a real difference in people's lives.
Like the analogy that was used at the conference, this is a lot like rural electrification. The cities got electricity because it was easy for private companies to make a profit there. It was much harder outside the cities because the customers were much farther apart. That is why we had the Rural Electrification Act. There is no simple answer for each community but there are answers and solutions that be put in place to position a community for the future without breaking the bank. The good news is that banks and others are starting to understand how fiber is to a community's future.
Fiber also makes financial sense for individual users. I have done the numbers time and again. If I could switch to one of the community networks that we have built, any upfront costs that I pay would be covered in fifteen months by the resulting savings from my getting out of the grip of the cable monopoly. After that initial period, my savings quickly start to mount up. Connecting a home to fiber is a better investment than remodeling your kitchen.
I remain optimistic that North Carolina will take up this challenge which former Governor Hunt likened to the challenge of getting all the state's dirt roads paved. I lived on a dirt road so I can relate. I remember the roads of my childhood being paved and I remember before they were paved that school had to be canceled in the winter sometimes because the roads were too muddy for buses.
This conference was a refreshing change for a year that seems destined to be defined by not so nice politics. Not a single person during the conference mentioned a party label. I did not have a clue about the political stripe of the one state representative who spoke. Even if I had not known, it would have been a safe bet to assume the former governor, James Hunt, who spoke was a Democrat. NC has only elected three Republican governors in the last one hundred years. I also knew our current governor, Roy Cooper, was a Democrat but none of that mattered since everyone was focused on the issue at hand, better broadband.
I hope this is a sign that everyone can work together on issues that have the potential to change our lives for the better.