If you listen to Alabama’s elected officials, one of the most pressing issues of the day is ensuring everyone in the state has access to broadband internet.
It shows up in public speeches, news releases and media appearances as frequently as roads and bridges, health care and farm subsidies. The idea politically, one would assume, is that everyone is in favor of rural broadband internet access.
Rural broadband is a valid concern. Although it is hard to imagine, there are still places in the United States where people must rely on dial-up internet access. According to figures Gov. Kay Ivey’s office released earlier this year, there are at least 276,000 people in Alabama who do not have any wired internet providers available where they live.
Add to that at least 842,000 people in Alabama without access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds, the Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband, and over 1 million Alabamians with access to only one wired internet provider — which, as some already know, allows that provider to charge exorbitant prices and avoid incentives to improve service.
The push now is for society to consider broadband internet in the same way water, sewer, power and gas are viewed — as a public utility. That, according to Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, would require some government involvement, as there is not an incentive for private internet service providers to do it on their own.
“I think that that’s certainly one aspect of it,” Jones told me in an interview earlier this year. “You know, when you’re talking about trying to lay fiber or internet access in these rural areas, you got to look at the cost-effectiveness. And you know, it costs a lot of money when you got only 10 users in a two-mile area, as opposed to the concentrated areas in the urban areas. I think we at least have to take a look at it.”
“I think the critical component is, one way or another, we got to make sure that the citizens of the state have access to that broadband,” he added. “And if that means a little government help for a while, we need to try to work that out because, at the end of the day, these areas are going to lose businesses.”
The issue is bipartisan. Alabama Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have also made overtures for government assistance on the matter.
“Roads and bridges are important, but another significant element is expanding access to broadband. Rural areas of our country should have the same access to broadband and infrastructure that urban areas do,” U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Montgomery) said in her weekly April 20 column, championing a provision of the farm bill that would provide money for rural internet service.
Her other Republican colleagues in Congress, including Reps. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope), Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) and Mike Rogers (R-Saks), have said similar things about the issue.
At the other end of the spectrum are the few places in Alabama that have top-of-the-line internet service. It comes at a premium, but if someone wanted to spend the money, they could have internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second.
Troy, Huntsville, Opelika and soon Scottsboro are the places in Alabama that have achieved gigabit city status.
Why would you need internet that fast? It’s not just to better stream Netflix or for gamers to have an edge in their “Call of Duty” exploits, but to improve quality of life. You can improve a municipality’s power grid, enhance police and fire protection, improve medical care and make your community more attractive for high-tech businesses.
In 2008, Opelika undertook establishing this service on its own after being unable to attract new broadband providers.
“We joke about it, but it’s true — our incumbent provider was Charter, the sorriest customer service. You cannot imagine any customer service sorrier than what Charter had,” Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller told me earlier this year. “But that was it. Predatory pricing and they did the same thing over in Auburn. When we started making noise, building the fiber system.”
Since state law prohibits localities from spending taxpayer money to build telecommunications, the idea went to Opelika voters in 2010.
As is the case when something threatens the status-quo, crony-capitalism-corporatist culture in this state, the telecom titans in Alabama descended upon Lee County to fight the referendum. They did so in the name of free markets, arguing that free enterprise shouldn’t have to compete with the government.
“They said government shouldn’t compete with private business,” Fuller said. “Well, if private business had furnished us a workable product and had taken care of our citizens, we never would have gotten started in it in the beginning. But they wouldn’t.”
The referendum succeeded by a landslide, 62-38 percent vote, but it came with restrictions.
“Right now, we can only serve the corporate limits of Opelika,” Fuller said.
He added that the city has sought to offer its high-speed internet service to parts of adjacent Auburn and rural parts of Lee County, which would require an act of the Alabama legislature. Previous efforts, however, have failed.
Sometimes crony capitalism shows up with a laissez-faire, Adam Smith mask. Assuming people are genuinely worried about the plight of Opelika taxpayers (many of whom are primarily outside Opelika city limits), where’s the concern about the federal government propping up potential rural internet broadband providers?
If society is going to view internet coverage the same way it views other utilities, then it must accept the possibility of operating at a loss to taxpayers, at least initially. Alabama seems to be OK with that if it means improving quality of life to less-served parts of the state.
It would stand to reason that if voters of a particular jurisdiction were OK with it, then their government ought to be allowed to make their existing options even better.
There seems to be a double standard when something threatens a business interest with deep pockets. Either internet providers in the name of free-market capitalism take on the costs of laying fiber all the way to Marengo County, or we have some form of government involvement — that is, if we really view internet access as a public utility. You can’t have it both ways.