Back in 2015, Mark Wherley drove from his home in southern Pennsylvania to nearby Westminster, Md., for a routine ribbon-cutting event. Wherley, a videographer at a nonprofit community TV station, was there to take footage of the unveiling of a new fiber-based internet network just over the state line.
Maryland officials had launched the new internet service to turbocharge connectivity in their community. Located not far from bigger cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, they hoped to attract new business to a “makerspace” hub complete with its own 3D printer and faster internet speeds. Big-city commuters living in these close-in rural areas, Maryland officials reasoned, expected to stay robustly connected.
By contrast, Wherley’s home in southern Pennsylvania lacked any similar super-fast fiber. Why, Wherley asked himself, was his community in southern Pennsylvania struggling with broadband connectivity while a county down the road had fiber laid and was cutting a ribbon?
Little changed over the next few years, and then came Covid, which transformed internet connectivity into a lifeline for workers, students and anyone who needed groceries. As Wherley and his colleagues tried to set up Zoom-based meetings for local officials, he struggled with the area’s hodgepodge of spotty individual internet set-ups. Bandwidth constraints forced some residents to trade off between parents’ work Zoom meetings and children participating in remote schooling.
“The further out you get, the connection gets worse and worse,” Wherley said in an interview. “Mainly it’s lack of options that most of the residents are upset with. There’s really only one option if you want internet, and if you’re upset with that, it’s take it or leave it.”
Robin Fitzpatrick, president of the Adams Economic Alliance, described great frustration with the “black holes” of broadband inadequacy in the county that became obvious during the pandemic; the school district bought 200 Wi-Fi hotspots for students whose homes lacked adequate wired options. “We realize how vulnerable we are in many different ways,” she said.
For decades, policymakers in Washington and state capitals have fretted about the patchwork of broadband access in the United States, which has held back economic development in underserved areas and became a major problem during the pandemic, when residents in these pockets suddenly couldn’t tap into what abruptly became the online default for much of the nation.
Now, after years of federal subsidies that have improved but not solved the problem, the Biden administration is proposing to spend $100 billion over the next eight years to finally connect every American household to high-speed internet. But solving the problem isn’t just a matter of cutting a big check to fund the installation of fiber pipelines. The nation, simply put, doesn’t even know where its internet black holes are found.
Take Adams County. If you look at the county on the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps, it doesn’t look so bad; the map suggests that the whole county has access to at least one home internet option. The federal data, which relies on information provided by telecom companies, suggests that only about 6 percent of Adams County’s 103,000 residents don’t have access to at-home broadband.
But few residents of Adams County believe those figures, and other estimates suggest a deeper shortfall. Microsoft shared data in December, gathered anonymously from its software business, positing that 61,000 people in Adams County — roughly 60 percent — don’t use the internet at proper broadband speeds. At a fall 2019 field hearing by the House Small Business Committee, local officials testified that Adams County’s median download speeds were just 5.9 megabits per second — well below the federal government’s bare minimum of 25 Mbps.
Wherley knows firsthand from his video work that his office at Community Media faces “bottlenecks” from not being able to upload fast enough. Internet providers tend to advertise download speeds, but during the pandemic, upload became critical to anyone using videoconferencing or trying to transmit large documents or video. One sales representative from Comcast, the nonprofit’s provider, told him they couldn’t offer more than 10 Mbps upload, he recalled — 10 times slower than what some members of Congress say should be the federal standard.
The broadband access problem in Adams County grates on Wherley and his neighbors in part because Comcast, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, is headquartered in Pennsylvania; it’s just 120 miles from the cable giant’s corporate offices in Philadelphia to Community Media’s offices in Adams County. But Comcast doesn’t offer broadband to all parts of Adams County, which residents blame on business logic arising from a marketplace that won’t generate adequate profits for a commercial provider to build out true broadband to all residents.
Many people assume that America’s broadband problem is focused on far-flung areas, like remote stretches of Western deserts or the deep recesses of forests. But in fact, the problem is also acute in areas like Adams County, which has medium-sized cities like Gettysburg which are not very far from suburbs of cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. The market just hasn’t generated the right incentives for internet providers to serve all potential customers in areas like Adams.
Just because broadband isn’t profitable for commercial providers in Adams County doesn’t mean it’s not a necessity for its residents. So that’s why Wherley and his neighbors are convinced that what they need is a nonprofit solution.
In the debate over rural broadband, one word pops up over and over: utility. Is broadband a service best delivered by private, for-profit companies? Or should it be a utility like electricity, water or old-fashioned landline telephones that are underwritten and regulated by the government?
Increasingly, residents of areas like Adams County are pressing for broadband to be run more as a utility or a nonprofit, where providing service to every address at manageable rates is the priority.
But communities that want to set up a nonprofit internet provider in Pennsylvania, and many other states, can run headlong into limitations on how much the government can be involved.
Pennsylvania is among the battlegrounds around internet connectivity because of a 2004 state law, passed after lobbying by the telecoms industry, that makes it hard for local governments to run their own broadband networks; nonprofits have more leeway but still face practical obstacles like raising the necessary capital. Maryland lacks similar restrictions and as a result has a greater number of community broadband services, such as the one in Westminster.
State laws in more than a third of the country limit the operation of municipal broadband networks. Incumbents like AT&T and Comcast argue that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be on the hook to operate such complicated internet architecture. Much better, they argue, to let the free market run the broadband world, which they contend should more efficiently deliver faster speeds and lower prices.
Internet service providers touted the durability of America’s internet networks during 2020 as a point of pride. Comcast and others paused customers’ data caps and late fees and made voluntary pledges to the federal government that they would not cut off service to those who couldn’t pay their monthly bills.
Comcast covers the lion’s share of homes and businesses in Adams County, including areas where Community Media hopes to eventually build its fiber network, according to Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice. She said that franchise agreements with cities in Adams County generally don’t require the company to provide service in areas with density less than 30 homes per road mile. (According to a study by cable trade group NCTA, 12 percent of the United States population lives in areas with density of less than 15 homes per road mile.) Fitzmaurice said the operator’s coaxial lines in Adams County offer up to 1.2-gigabit service for downloads across the region. A second provider, CenturyLink, also provides internet access in Adams County, but it uses an older technology called DSL that isn’t as fast and also doesn’t reach all areas.
Local communities warn the reality doesn’t always jive with providers’ rhetoric, and the global pandemic created new urgency to deliver reliable, fast network connections. Technologies like 5G, which connects users wirelessly but still relies on a fiber network, has also encouraged rural areas like Adams County to press for fiber, even if a nonprofit, cooperative or local government has to take up the mantle.
The Biden administration is also thinking this way and has prioritized municipal and nonprofit broadband as part of the White House’s infrastructure plan, which includes $100 billion aimed at connecting the whole of the U.S. to high-speed internet over the course of eight years. Biden’s plan “prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities,” the White House said in April.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have compared the need to expand broadband across the U.S. to the country’s ambitious electrification effort from the last century. During that drive, the federal government loaned out major sums of money to cooperatives to light up every home and business in the country with electric power, no matter how remote.
Scores of local governments, as well as cooperatives and nonprofits, have attempted to set up their own broadband networks over the years, leading telecoms and other internet providers to push for state restrictions like the law in Pennsylvania. An Obama-era regulatory push to preempt such state roadblocks failed in court, but some see an opportunity to slip such a provision in Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure legislation given a groundswell of community interest. This May, for instance, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law undoing municipal broadband restrictions.
“I think it’s having a moment,” said Angelina Panettieri, principal telecom associate at the National League of Cities. “I think people are finally getting it. I think a lot of people are pissed off after the last year.”
Advocacy organizations like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have spent years trying to build support for broadband access that goes beyond a single for-profit provider. It maps the locations for what it counts as more than 900 community efforts, including cooperatives and at least 560 involving local government. Chattanooga, Tenn., which has nicknamed itself “Gig City,” is one frequently heralded success.
And these fights are taking places in both rural and urban areas, some of which have suffered from “digital red-lining” in low-income areas where service can be poor and prices out of reach for residents.
In New York City, BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird describes his green energy company’s struggle to hook up entire apartment buildings with Wi-Fi — which is needed to run energy-saving devices like smart thermostats — and the pandemic-motivated decision to launch a community mesh Wi-Fi network, expanding earlier efforts from Brooklyn into the Bronx. They set up a community-owned internet provider covering 180,000 people, with an emphasis on low-income neighborhoods. He is talking with investors about how to scale this kind of model across the country.
A key element of the plan is to make the service affordable for low-income residents. “If people can’t afford it, they won’t pay anything,” Baird said. “If they can afford it, they’ll pay $10 to $15 a month.”
As in Adams County, many of the nonprofit and cooperative initiatives come after years of local efforts to work with incumbent telecoms first. In southern Pennsylvania, residents formed a broadband task force to negotiate with local providers a decade ago but residents remain dissatisfied.
“There’s been businesses that failed to come to our county because of the lack of infrastructure that we have,” said Raymond Gouker, the founder and CEO of Community Media. “The government, if they could do more, they probably would.”
Manufacturers are warning Adams County officials that they need better connectivity in order to facilitate the automation they need to stay competitive, according to Fitzpatrick, the Adams Economic Alliance head. Local farmers carry two cellphones as a means of trying to hold at least one signal in parts of the region with weak connectivity. And although tourists come through Gettysburg to visit nearby Civil War battlefields, she thinks better connectivity is essential to draw younger generations of visitors in the coming years.
“We’re constantly trying to get the manufacturers who work here to remain here, to not go elsewhere — or even to expand,” Fitzpatrick said, recalling what she dubs “gaslighting” from incumbent internet providers whose promises don’t seem to deliver the necessary fixes. “We’re at a real pinch point right now as to how to get those adequate services to everyone and get those higher speeds to the manufacturers and to the health care providers for the testing as well as the virtual visits and all that jazz.”
Difficulty, however, remains substantial for nonprofit efforts, a scale challenge that existing commercial telecom providers will frequently emphasize.
Right now, Community Media is trying to pull together $3 million for the first phase of its network plans, which would serve about 1,200 homes throughout Adams County. The project leaders cite a good deal of upfront expenses, with planning studies running as much as $50,000. They already won some grant money over the last two years and worked with firms to complete a feasibility study. Engineers have given estimates it’ll cost $15,000 to $30,000 per mile to lay fiber-optic cable. The total cost for the county may wind up ranging between $50 million to $100 million, Gouker estimated.
Such infrastructure, they say, could revitalize the corridor, helping to lay broadband along a local highway serving many adjacent businesses as well as helping a local community college.
They have eyed many potential sources of funding and see the federal pandemic relief passed in March as particularly promising. Other options have faltered. They hired an external firm to help navigate what they judged a complicated application process for an FCC rural broadband auction last year but discovered they would not be able to win much money. And the Agriculture Department’s especially low standards for broadband speeds knocked them out of the running for federal aid from USDA programs because under those standards, Adams County is generally considered connected.
Some sections of the county will be money-losers, they acknowledge, but they say the upsides are more important, particularly in the long term.
In Washington, the broadband debate revolves mostly over the role of the private sector versus public.
Republicans oppose cutting out the private sector, despite their own interest in delivering connectivity for rural constituents who tend to vote Republican. Adams County itself has typically leaned to the right, with Biden winning only 32 percent of the vote last November. Republicans raised these broadband concerns in an Oval Office meeting this spring with Biden and Harris discussing infrastructure.
“You can’t have a scenario where the federal government comes in and serves as your employer, serves as your mother, comes in and addresses your every need,” one attendee, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), said afterward. “It’s unaffordable, it’s unhealthy.”
The White House’s emphasis on municipal broadband is “a source of great concern; it’s a path we don’t need to get started down,” top Senate Commerce Committee Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi said in a mid-May interview during the heat of Senate GOP infrastructure negotiations with the White House. “I think we can demonstrate that that’s not a good approach based on competition and history.”
Instead, a top GOP priority is to streamline the permitting process to make it easier for private internet providers to build out broadband, particularly on federal lands. Republicans also commonly say the federal government should do a better job of marshaling and coordinating existing broadband subsidies, which number in the tens of billions of dollars, before launching many scores of billions more. They caution about funding projects that compete for business in areas that internet providers already claim to serve, which could chill the industry’s investment of their own capital.
Republicans also worry about a repeat of fumbles they saw in 2009’s Obama-era stimulus package, which they say “[dropped] money into areas that then went into direct competition with small mom and pop businesses out there that were trying to provide it,” said Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), a senior lawmaker overseeing broadband policy on the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. “All of sudden, you had the government competing against you.”
Democrats, meanwhile, increasingly frame broadband as a utility that requires new solutions beyond what’s been tried before, which may call for nontraditional internet providers — including nonprofits. In April, the vice president visited a New Hampshire electric cooperative owned by its customer-members that provides broadband, part of what Harris dubbed a “national commitment” to delivering necessary services that now include digital connectivity.
Party leaders say delivering on such a commitment may require driving legislative investments in the infrastructure package through Capitol Hill, even if that means bypassing hesitant GOP colleagues using the budget reconciliation process. They say Republican and Democratic voters alike will benefit, even if Republican votes on Capitol Hill aren’t there.
“The pandemic made it very clear,” said Senate Broadband Caucus co-Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is leading a major broadband bill that lines up with White House ambitions. “I think there is public realization now, not just in blue areas but in red areas, not just in urban areas but in rural areas, that this is unfair and it hurts everyone.”
Top providers, including Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Verizon, dispute the assertion that they aren’t up to the job. They have aggressively tried to counter White House framing — even forming a coalition last month pointing to their own billions of dollars in network investment and urging people to lobby Congress to make sure infrastructure legislation leverages “existing and extensive private investment.”
Industry allies warn of high-profile municipal broadband projects that have faltered, with the right-leaning Taxpayers Protection Alliance launching a website devoted to chronicling such “broadband boondoggles.” (Although the alliance doesn’t disclose funding, cable trade group NCTA gave them $20,000, per 2018 IRS records). During a broadband hearing this May, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) maintained: “I could list all the [private providers] that have failed; it would be a much longer list.”
Broadband advocates are still uncertain just how much relief may appear and in what form. The White House surprised many in May when it said it would be open to compromising with Senate Republicans to advance only $65 billion for broadband instead of the original $100 billion. And municipal advocates at the National League of Cities feared that the standards the administration will use to dole out March’s pandemic relief money for broadband could limit how widely it could be spent.
The community media advocates in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, say they’re agnostic on how much government is involved, if at all. They say they just want broadband.
“I like the idea of local people taking care of their own and keeping the money in the county,’’ said Gouker, “rather than having the government give the money to big corporations to do the things that they should have done.”