Local residents gather for a B4RN dig party in Lancashire last year. Photo by Marty Dews.
Look outside of your window. If you see miles of farmland, chances are you have terrible internet service. That’s because major telecommunications companies don’t think it’s worth the investment to bring high-speed broadband to sparsely populated areas. But like most businesses, farms increasingly depend on the internet to pay bills, monitor the market, and communicate with partners. In the face of a sluggish connection, what's a group of farmers to do?
Grow their own, naturally.
That’s what the people of Lancashire, England, are doing. Last year, a coalition of local farmers and others from the northwestern British county began asking local landowners if they could use their land to begin laying a brand new, community-owned, high-speed network, sparing them the expense of tearing up roads. Then, armed with shovels and backhoes, the group, called Broadband for the Rural North, or B4RN (it's pronounced "barn"), began digging the first of what will be approximately 180,000 meters of trenches and filling them with fiber-optic cable, all on its own.
The next step, after raising half a million pounds from shareholders, is to convince Lancastrians to pony up about fifty dollars a month for internet service. (Those who invest £1500 or more can get a year's free service, a tax credit of 30 percent, and the option to sell the entire investment back in 2016 at full value.) This isn't AOL dial-up: Customers will have access to a blazing-fast 1-gigabit connection, something that many city-dwellers, myself included, would covet.
B4RN is not an isolated movement. Community-supported internets are being constructed in rural areas of the United States too, in places the country's telecom behemoths have all but ignored. Take the Central Illinois Regional Broadband Network (CIRBN), which has already installed 103 miles of fiber optic cables thanks to an $18 million federal grant combined with state and private funds. The idea is to create a backbone in the suburban Bloomington-Normal area, and then branch out to surrounding rural communities.
Like B4RN, CIRBN will be run as a not-for-profit organization–which, hopefully, means customers won’t be subjected to the absurd fees and impersonal customer service of corporate giants like Verizon, Comcast, or Time Warner Cable. Not that major ISPs will be cut out of the picture altogether. If a large telecommunications company thinks there is profit in serving central Illinois, they’ll be able to partner with CIRBN to provide internet access. Most of the time however, the big players in telecom can't justify investing in rural broadband, which the FCC defines as speeds of at least 4 megabytes per second. Last month, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said that the company was looking for "a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one, to be quite candid."
Governments are pitching in where they can. One of the main goals of the European Regional Development Fund is to finance high-speed broadband in underserved areas of the EU, which sounds great, except in most communities the highest bidder for contracts is BT. In the United States, federal funds set aside for rural broadband development often face obstacles in the form of restrictive state laws. Texas, North Carolina, Nebraska, and 16 other states prohibit or discourage municipalities and public power utilities from offering telecommunications services. That the telecom lobby is behind such laws is not surprising.
In 2009, the city of Longmont, Colorado, voted on a referendum to overturn the state's restrictions on city-run broadband networks. It was defeated by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, which spent $300,000 on its campaign, with its biggest contributions coming from—surprise, surprise—Comcast. It took another two years before voters, this time armed with the facts, were able to pass the initiative.
It's a trend that America has seen before: When the country was electrifying in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of communities—including Longmont—formed their own electric utilities as a way of protesting the pitiful rates and service provided by private companies. Indeed, over a century ago, Longmont's citizens found their access to electricity so limited (they could only use their electric lights between 6 pm and 8 pm) and costly, that they banded together to build their own electric utility.
The response from the private sector today isn't new, either: In the early 1900s, consolidated power companies claimed that public ownership of electrical utilities was “costly and dangerous” and fraught with failure. Most control over the nation's power would end up consolidated into a small group of companies that, the Federal Trade Commission would argue, routinely gouged consumers. Today, more than 2,000 communities in the US, including Seattle, San Antonio and Los Angeles, still provide their own electricity.