The gigabit promise in North Carolina

A consensus has emerged: America needs a critical mass of communities with world-leading bandwidth in order to secure the human capital and resources to innovate. It is nothing short of imperative for economic development, job creation and global competitiveness in the 21st Century.

The recent  announcement that AT&T is bringing its GigaPower product to communities in North Carolina is great news for those areas. But it also indicates that local leaders are beginning to understand the importance of network upgrades in their communities.

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This is the promise that North Carolina holds for the rest of the country. A coordinated effort amongst six municipalities and four leading research universities, supported by local Chambers of Commerce and businesses in the Research Triangle and Piedmont regions, aimed to address the need for ultra-high speed broadband and these groups worked together to issue a Request for Proposals to get it. Strategies have differed, but communities are standing up and taking notice of the necessity of fiber networks--for the home, business and institutions.

And now, in 2014, we are at a remarkable tipping point, where access to power has been replaced by access to bandwidth, the infrastructure of the 21st Century knowledge economy.

In the United States, there are over 800 fiber to the home service providers—from incumbent service providers, to competitive over-builders and municipalities. But we need more. In too many places, people worry whether they have enough bandwidth to do what they need to do. The effects of this kind of self-rationing should not be underestimated, as it in turn rations the imagination and experimentation that fuels innovation.

But there are reasons to be positive about the possibility for communities to take charge of their bandwidth destinies. Last summer, the FTTH Council proposed the Gigabit Race to the Top plan for the FCC to fund some experiments in how to cost effectively bring next generation fiber to unserved and underserved rural areas.

And the FCC agreed: In January, the Commission announced a program that will offer grants to communities or providers who develop the best ways of delivering connectivity in unserved or underserved areas, providing world-leading bandwidth at affordable rates, increasing adoption and connecting public facilities. This demand demonstrates a new model for driving investment into communications infrastructure. To date, they’ve received over 1,000 expressions of interest.

Approximately 20 states have laws prohibiting or limiting municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.  At the FTTH Council, we’ve long counseled and fought against such restrictions—just as bandwidth should not be a barrier to innovation, neither should outdated rules be barriers to community choice. We want all entities to be able to participate in bringing leading edge networks throughout the country.

While we’re on the subject of FCC actions, just a few weeks ago, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said: “Removing legal restrictions on municipal broadband could enhance Internet access competition.” He has committed to look for ways to use the Commission’s authority to do away with those rules. While the private sector has undertaken the vast majority of all-fiber deployments, the communities themselves need to be able to get this essential infrastructure where the private sector is unable to deploy.

Building fiber to the home communities together is the central mission of the FTTH Council – exemplified by the release of our online community toolkit and accompanying conference last summer in Kansas City.

And we’re proud to work with companies like Google Fiber in this effort. Building on the work of the Fiber to the Home Council, Gig.U, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other industry experts, Google Fiber recently announced a project to compile best practices into a practical, actionable roadmap that makes getting bigger bandwidth easier, faster and less disruptive. They have released a checklist for cities based on some of the work that the Council and others have done so far that can help any fiber provider or city thinking of building a new network with advance planning to minimize costs and disruptions.  

Our goal is to demystify the process for communities to become fiber-ready and help them take control of their bandwidth destinies. We hope communities around the country look to the example North Carolina has set and take the next step.

Gold is the president of Fiber-to-the-Home Council Americas, a non-profit organization established to help its members plan, market, implement and manage fiber to the home solutions.