If you’re looking for ultra-fast broadband, don’t bother heading to U.S. tech hubs like Silicon Valley, New York City, or Seattle. Your best bet may just be rural North Dakota. A new report by the Institute For Local Self Reliance (ILSR) found that more than two-thirds of rural North Dakotans have access to fiber broadband, compared to less than 20 percent of rural U.S. residents elsewhere. Rural North Dakotans are also more likely to have access to gigabit fiber broadband that’s spottily available in many urban areas.
The roots of the state’s broadband success originate in the 1990s, when a coalition of local communities banded together in frustration over US West, a then dominant network provider created by the 1982 breakup of AT&T. Like many modern telecom giants, US West didn’t believe that serving rural America was worth the expense. Locals obviously disagreed, and a coalition of 15 local cooperatives and small businesses bought US West’s neglected network assets, incorporating them into their own networks—paving the way for the fiber networks of today. “Not only did it prevent the entrance of another national monopoly, but the new territories strengthened the North Dakota providers, helping them grow and achieve new economies of scale,” the report notes. “Some were even able to leverage the expansion to expand into areas served by other incumbents, creating choice for local businesses and families.” US West was long ago swallowed up by CenturyLink, which, much like its predecessor, has been repeatedly criticized for failing to upgrade its aging DSL networks. Despite receiving millions in poorly-tracked taxpayer subsidies, countless U.S. telcos have simply let their networks fall apart, resulting not only in spotty broadband coverage, but a more potent Comcast monopoly. Frustrated by this dysfunction, more than 750 communities across the United States have built their own alternatives. Data routinely indicates these networks provide better, faster, and cheaper service than regional incumbents. It’s a major reason why ISPs like AT&T have lobbied for nearly two-dozen state laws prohibiting such efforts.
“With national monopolies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Frontier refusing to upgrade their rural networks, communities should look to the example set by North Dakota’s local companies for a path to better connectivity,” the report concludes. While mediocre broadband has long been a U.S. problem, the pandemic has brought renewed attention to the fact that such connectivity is an essential lifeline. Yet more than 42 million Americans lack access to any type of broadband, and millions more can’t afford it thanks to a lack of competition and apathetic revolving door regulators.
“As millions of people shelter in place and rely on the Internet for work, school, and streaming entertainment, it’s more important than ever that all Americans have access to high-quality, affordable broadband service,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Network Initiative at ILSR said in a statement. Mitchell has long argued that local providers tend to be far more responsive to local communities because they’re actually part of them. “This case study offers still more evidence that the future of great rural connectivity is local providers—not the big telephone monopolies that have consistently refused to invest in rural networks,” Mitchell said. Past ISLR studies have shown that mindlessly throwing subsidies at the nation’s biggest telecom monopolies isn’t an effective way to fix the problem. In part because US broadband mapping is a notoriously terrible, but also because feckless oversight routinely means such funds often never reach the smaller, rural communities they were intended for. “Having given big monopolies like AT&T, Frontier, and CenturyLink billions of dollars that were wasted on obsolete technology, governments have to recognize the folly of giving them another dime,” Mitchell said. “Local providers have built the vast majority of high-quality networks that serve rural Americans and are the best strategy to finish the job.”