Create a competitive state fund, the Connect North Carolina Fund, to deploy fiber networks to all communities in North Carolina.
Ultra-high speed Internet connectivity is the key infrastructure challenge of this generation. The future of business, education and health care — especially in rural areas — depends on the Internet to bridge the gaps in distance and opportunity. Study after study has found positive impacts of faster Internet service on things such as jobs,1 GDP2 and property values.3
Thankfully, North Carolina is already in a great position to significantly upgrade its technology infrastructure with the potential to benefit all families, rural and urban. A fiber network already exists in all 100 North Carolina counties through the public schools. The private non-profit MCNC, owns and operates the statewide fiber network, NCREN. This network is a significant asset and building block. The Triangle and the Charlotte regions are emerging as hotbeds of fiber connectivity with growing investments from Google, AT&T and others. This competition will help to keep access affordable through competitive rate setting.
In addition, funding from the federal government is already in place to do most of this work. The Connect America Fund incentives providers, such as cable and phone companies, deploy broadband infrastructure to underserved areas. The Fund spent $85 million in North Carolina in 2014 alone. The program has spent more than $1.1 billion in North Carolina since 1998.4 Unfortunately, the Connect America program does not require the installation of high-speed fiber, but often funds lower-speed broadband.
The NC Office of Digital Infrastructure should develop a strategic plan to bring fiber to every home in North Carolina by 2025. The plan should engage local leadership in underserved areas and existing providers. The plan should also feature a competitive grant fund that spends as little as 10-15% of Connect America’s yearly expenditure. The “Connect North Carolina Fund” will offer additional funding to providers already taking the Connect America funds to upgrade their installations to fiber.
Require that roads built with state dollars include a broadband conduit.
Bipartisan federal legislation was filed in October 2015 to require all roads built with federal funds to include a broadband conduit – plastic pipes which house fiber-optic communications cable – over the next 15 years.5 According to the Federal Highway Administration, it is more expensive to lay fiber by digging up and repairing an existing road, than digging a channel during initial road construction. It costs an average of $9-10 per foot to install conduit on an existing road. Building a trench at the same time as initial road construction would drop the average per-foot cost by half to $4-5.
The State of North Carolina should do the same. After years of resistance from state departments of transportation because of liability and maintenance concerns, allowing broadband access to state right-of-way has become more common nationally in recent years. In fact, NCDOT and MCNC have worked together in North Carolina to extend broadband in rural areas across the state. These efforts should be supported and extended where needed.
By including a broadband conduit in state roads, we can achieve long-term savings for state and local governments and providers while speeding the deployment of fiber to all North Carolina homes.
1 Mandel, Michael. (February 2012). Where the Jobs Are: The App Economy. Tech Net.
2 Greenstein, Shane and Ryan C. McDevitt. (February 2009). The Broadband Bonus: Accounting for Broadband Internet's Impact on U.S. GDP. National Bureau of Economic Research.
3 Gabor, Molnar, Gabor, Scott Savage and Douglas Sicker. (August 2013). The Impact of High-Speed Broadband Availability on Real Estate Values: Evidence from United States Property Markets. TPRC 41: The 41st Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy.
4 Universal Service Administrative Company. 2014 Annual Report.
5 Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. Press Release. (October 22, 2015). "Eshoo, Walden Introduce ‘Dig Once’ Broadband Deployment Bill."