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In December 2016, the Congressional Research Service office released two reports on federal funding programs to improve high-speed Internet access. One report focuses on Tribal lands, and the other report provides an overview of the digital divide in general.
Dollars for the Digital Divide
Researchers Lennard G. Kruger and Angele A. Gilroy collaborated on Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs. Kruger is a specialist in Science and Technology Policy and Gilroy is a specialist in Telecommunications Policy. The report provides an overview of ongoing efforts, including recently enacted legislation.
Kruger and Gilroy define the digital divide as between those who have access and those who do not. In particular, they focus on the dynamic between urban and rural areas, especially with regard to different income levels. The researchers consolidate previously released information on the digital divide and provide an analysis of current programs, including grants through the Appalachian Regional Commission. The researchers conclude by detailing all recent legislation. Check out the report for more information.
Status of Tribal Broadband
Kruger also wrote Tribal Broadband: Status of Deployment and Federal Funding Programs. This report follows up the Government Accountability Office’s 2016 report, Additional Coordination and Performance Measurement Needed for High-Speed Internet Access Programs on Tribal Lands.
Drawing on information from both the GAO’s report and the FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report, Kruger relays key facts about Internet access and federal funding. In particular, Kruger notes in the report that there is no dedicated federal funding earmarked to improving Internet access on Tribal lands:
To improve rural Internet access, the Georgia Joint House and Senate Study Committee on High Speed Broadband Communications Access for All Georgians recommends that Georgia enable municipal networks and empower rural electric cooperatives.
The committee recently released their report on potential solutions for the lack of rural connectivity. They held six public meetings over the course of four months in 2016, consulting with stakeholders and concerned citizens.
Support of Local Government Networks
Specifically, the report recommended that the Georgia legislature:
“Reaffirm the state’s approval of competitive telecommunication markets by continuing to permit locally-owned and operated government broadband services”
In the economic development section of the report, they detailed the positive role of community networks and the challenges in finding financing.
The report pointed to the success of two community networks, Community Network Services (CNS) and ElbertonNet. ElbertonNet is the fifteen-year-old community network of Elberton, Georgia. The report praised the community network’s “tremendous public feedback” and “exceptional customer service.”
The Federal Reserve is responsible for setting interest rates and executing monetary policy in the United States, but many people don’t realize that the agency also has a hand in community development. This summer, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a report, Closing the Digital Divide: A Framework for Meeting CRA Obligations, which includes information for banks about funding digital inclusion programs and community networks.
The report, published in July, states:
“Access to broadband has become essential to make progress in all areas of community development—education and workforce development, health, housing, small-business development and access to financial services.”
Closing the Digital Divide is important not only because it provides substantial information for banks, but also because it indicates federal support exists for community-based infrastructure improvements. The report discusses improving Internet access for low and moderate-income individuals and neighborhoods.
Using The Community Reinvestment Act To Improve Infrastructure
From the 1930 until the late 1970s, many banks denied lending to individuals and organizations based on their location. The practice is called “redlining” after the red ink that outlined low-income neighborhoods on a map, and was made illegal when Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in 1977. Under the CRA, banks must to use the same evaluation criteria for all loan applicants regardless of the neighborhood they live in, which expands lending to include low and moderate-income (LMI) individuals. The Federal Reserve assesses banks’ performance under CRA guidelines, which bring about $100 million in capital to low and moderate income areas per year through various projects. Improving Internet access is an increasingly large portion of these initiatives.
In The Weeds
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Acadiana, the southern region of Louisiana, is seeing a resurgence of industry thanks in large part to it publicly owned fast, affordable, reliable network. Years ago, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, built the LUS Fiber network to connect homes and business.
Now, LUS Fiber is helping to diversify Acadiana’s economy, which once almost exclusively relied on the oil industry. Fiber networks offer much potential for economic development.
“The State of Business” in the Silicon Bayou
The October-November issue of the Acadiana Profile at MyNewOrleans.com ran an article on the changing landscape of Acadiana’s businesses. Author Kimberly Singletary provides an overview of three growing industries: technology, manufacturing, and healthcare. All three need access to reliable, high-speed connections.
Singletary spoke with One Acadiana, an economic development organization in Lafayette:
“We’ve had a long history of innovation in IT and software,” says Jason El Koubi, CEO of One Acadiana. “But it's still very much an emerging field.”
Due to what El Koubi describes as “almost a grassroots movement in cultivating IT over the years,” the Acadiana region enjoys a robust offering of internet services resulting in a competitive, cheap and extremely fast LUS Fiber network.
LUS Fiber offers affordable, high-speed connectivity to several software developers that have made Acadiana their new home. The network offers speeds of up to 2 Gigabits (2,000 Megabits per second). In 2014, LUS Fiber attracted three companies, bringing almost 1,000 jobs to the “Silicon Bayou.” Another company, Waitr, an Uber-like food delivery service, is planning to add an operations center to Lafayette, which will bring another 100 jobs to the community.
More Than Tech: Industries Need Connectivity
Throughout the October Broadband Communities Magazine conference, folks kept repeating this sentiment: some partnerships are smooth and others have rough patches. At the conference, we heard from several electric cooperatives who had partnered with other cooperatives to provide next-generation connectivity to their communities.
We specifically want to highlight the work of two North Carolina electric cooperatives: Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. They were both included in our report North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Each co-op took the bold step of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout sparsely populated regions. At the conference, we were able to learn first-hand about their experiences.
Despite the Distance: Lumbee River EMC & HTC
HTC Chief Executive of Marketing Brent Groome described how the two cooperatives collaborated despite being nearly an hour away from each other. Their work together has involved a commitment to similar values and dedication to improving rural communities. (Lumbee River EMC’s representative was unable to attend the conference as much of the service territory had suffered flooding from the recent hurricane.)
Lumbee River EMC’s entry into Internet service brought fiber connectivity to southeastern North Carolina. The co-op provides electricity to more than 50,000 members. In 2010, the USDA provided Lumbee River EMC with nearly $20 million in funding to install fiber. A state law, however, imposes certain restrictions on electric co-ops and USDA funding. The electric co-op had to find another company with the drive and expertise to provide Internet service.
H.R. Trostle On Co-ops, Munis, Connectivity In North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 224
In June, North Carolina released a report pronouncing that 93 percent of the state has access to broadband speeds. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who has been examining reporting data in North Carolina for the past year, came to some very different conclusions. In episode 224, she and Christopher talk about the report they co-authored, which gives a different perspective on the connectivity situation in the Tar Heel State.
In their report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Trostle discovered that, while urban areas have been well served by the big private providers, those same national companies have shunned rural areas. Instead, rural cooperatives and municipal networks are attempting to serve their residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. It isn’t easy, however, when state laws discourage investment and access to federal funding.
Trostle gets into her analysis of the data, its limitations, and what we can learn from both. She and Chris go through some of the recommendations they provide to the state of North Carolina as it moves forward. The obvious first step is to repeal the state’s barrier on municipal network expansion, which has caused real harm in Pinetops, North Carolina. They also offer advice on how to facilitate telephone and electric cooperative investment and what that could mean for rural North Carolina.
For more, take a few minutes to download the report, which offers useful maps of where to find various connection speeds in the state.
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Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."
This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.
H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.
H.R. Trostle: Hi.
Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.
We have extensively studied the connectivity situation in North Carolina and just released our report, “North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Now you can hear from the report authors, H.R. Trostle and Christopher Mitchell, in our most recent PRX coverage.
We spoke with both authors who gave us a recap of the situation in urban and rural North Carolina. They explained how they examined the data and came to the conclusion that, while urban areas are served relatively well by big private providers, the same cannot be said in rural areas. Unless a muni or rural telephone or electric cooperative offers Internet access in a rural region, odds are rural residents and businesses just don’t have access to FCC defined broadband speeds. Audio coverage runs 5:22.
You can also download the report to dig into the details and learn more about connectivity in North Carolina.
North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.
The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.
The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers.
In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.