Website empowers WNC residents to map broadband access

ASHEVILLE – Residents of Western North Carolina plagued by sub-par broadband Internet access – or no access at all – can document their experience to share with policymakers thanks to a new website from the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” enables WNC residents to run a broadband speed test and submit the results to be mapped and measured against the official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband availability map. The free website also allows residents to map locations where broadband is not available.

The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, cannot get wired broadband service from a cable or telephone company. That estimate includes more than 48,000 residents in 16 counties in Western North Carolina.

“Based on our experience, we believe the FCC is underestimating the scope of this problem,” said Wally Bowen, executive director of MAIN, which has advocated for Internet access in rural areas since 1995. The FCC’s estimate is based primarily on data provided by the cable and telephone companies.

“This new website empowers citizens to compare their real-life experience with the FCC data, but more importantly, it dissects the broadband problem, provides ideas for solving it, and shows citizens how to add their voices to the policy debate,” said Bowen.

Telecommunications is considered one of the most arcane and complex public policy issues. “Of course, those who benefit from this complexity prefer to keep it that way,” said Bowen. “Our goal is to decipher the world of broadband policy and make it accessible to the folks who are most affected by these policies.”

In a speech last May, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted the centrality of broadband access in daily life and the high cost incurred by the broadband deficit. “Millions being left out of jobs, left out of digital learning, is not just an economic issue; it’s a civil rights issue, he said.”

Once considered a luxury, broadband is now a necessity for getting an education, finding a job, and participating in civic affairs. “Today, if you don’t have adequate broadband access, you are riding in the back of the bus,” Bowen said.

Increasingly, broadband-deprived citizens have turned to public libraries for relief. But 65 percent of libraries report “insufficient” workstations to meet public demand, and almost half report “insufficient” broadband speed, according to the annual “Public Libraries and the Internet” survey. The FCC’s current definition of broadband sets a minimum speed of 4 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” will serve as a platform for citizens’ voices to share their experiences and to press key policymakers and elected officials for a solution to the rural broadband deficit. MAIN will issue periodic reports as it collects and analyzes the speed test data.

“Solving this problem isn’t rocket science,” said Bowen. “We’ve seen this movie before. Seventy-five years ago, for-profit electric utilities left rural America in the dark, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act and allowed local communities to solve the problem themselves by creating nonprofit electric cooperatives.”

Funding for a similar Rural Broadband Act has already been approved by Congress via the Universal Service Fund. Last year, the FCC converted USF to the Connect America Fund, with plans to spend $4.5 billion a year through 2020 for rural broadband deployment. The money comes from the $1-$2 USF fee paid each month by all US telephone subscribers.

Under current FCC rules, only incumbent telephone companies are eligible for CAF subsidies. However, the largest of these carriers – Verizon and AT&T – have refused the subsidies. Moreover, the large carriers have notified the FCC that they plan to abandon their wired networks in rural and other unprofitable areas.

“The refusal of Connect America funding by the big carriers, plus their plans to abandon their wired networks in rural areas, is a policy earthquake that’s been ignored by corporate media,” Bowen said.

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” is a major step toward making the rural broadband deficit a front-burner issue, he said.

The website is phase one of a project funded by a $10,000 Rural Digital Advocacy grant from the Rural Policy Action Partnership, which includes the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, the Center for Rural Strategies, Network Impact, Inc., and the Kellogg Foundation.

The project also provides training for rural activists in how to use digital mapping and data-visualization to deepen public understanding of their issues.

The training will initially focus on staff and volunteers from five local nonprofit partners: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Canary Coalition, Disability Partners, Western Region Education Services Alliance, and Mountain Area Health Education Center.

MAIN’s project partner is Navigating Our Future, a nonprofit developer of civic IT infrastructure based in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, WA.

For more information, contact Wally Bowen at 828.255.0182 or e-mail: mapping@main.nc.us. END

 

 

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