For Rural Broadband, Sometime Cities Must Step In
A few years ago, the Oklahoma town of Tuttle suddenly found itself without cable or internet service after a local broadband provider went bankrupt, leaving behind unpaid bills to the power company.“Tuttle, we believe, became the largest city in America without cable service or internet service,” said Tim Young, the town’s city manager.Like the majority of cities in the U.S., Tuttle residents accessed broadband through private companies rather than through a city-run system. With the town of a few thousand growing quickly and attracting professionals from nearby Oklahoma City who were used to high-speed internet, Tuttle city officials began meeting with new private telecommunications companies to fill the gap.According to Young, every one of them expressed the same concern: the population wasn’t big or dense enough to garner much of a profit.Kevin Beyer, general manager of Farmers, a century-old phone company, talks with Morrie, center, and Al Schacherer at the auto shop they run in Dawson, Minn., Nov. 19, 2013. Farmers laid 600 miles of fiber cable in 2011 with the help of $9.6 million in stimulus grants and loans.Scouted other networksSo Young said he and other city officials changed strategies and began taking tours of other Oklahoma cities that had set up municipal broadband networks, meaning the system was owned and operated by the town.“We began to realize that this is something that we could do ourselves and began to go down that path,” he said, noting that no taxes or rates were increased to pay for the upstart loan provided by a local bank. “From my standpoint, I’ve been more surprised by how easy and simple it is to put the system in.”Across the United States, many Americans in small towns and rural areas are still struggling to access affordable, quality broadband. As more and more services move online, Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Andy Berke stands in front of an aerial image of Chattanooga, on the wall of his conference room, Nov. 17, 2014. Berke is a major promoter of the city’s municipal fiber optic network‘Exceeded all expectations’In Chattanooga, Tennessee, frequently touted as a shining example of quality municipal broadband, Mayor Andy Berke said the product “exceeded all expectations.”“I don’t think the people had a true understanding of just how successful this would be,” Berke said, crediting the high-speed connection for Chattanooga’s low unemployment rate and bustling tech and innovation economy.Even in Arkansas, a handful of towns that set up municipal broadband ahead of the ban say they have benefited from having it.Paragould, Ark., set up one of the first municipal broadband systems in the United States. (T.Krug/VOA)Paragould, a community of about 30,000, went into the cable business in the early 1990s, eventually including broadband and going into direct competition with a major private telecommunications company in town. Eventually, the city bought out the private company’s assets.“The citizens weren’t happy with the offerings and the prices [of the other company],” said Marcus Dowdy, director of broadband services for Paragould Light Water and Cable.Over the years, Dowdy said more and more Arkansas communities and co-ops have expressed interest in starting the process themselves.Marcus Dowdy, director of Broadband Services for the city of Paragould, said residents “weren’t happy” with services previously provided by a private telecommunications company. In the early 1990s, the city sought to change that. (T.Krug/VOA)“[Broadband] is going to become more of a utility,” Dowdy said.Regardless of how successful future municipal broadband networks may be, Cooper said he can’t foresee a time when every house in America — no matter how remote — is eventually connected to a fiber network. In the end, there will be a combination of technology employed.“It’s just too big of a project. There’s too much infrastructure involved,” Cooper said.