Motherboard, February 28, 2013
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%, 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 beheamoths 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.
While North America leads the world in broadband penetration–some 72 percent of households in North America have fixed broadband service –as of June 2011, around 14.5 million rural Americans, or nearly a quarter of the 61 million people living in rural areas, had no fast Internet service to their homes, according to the FCC. The President has set a goal of ensuring that 98 percent of Americans have access at 6 megabytes per second; currently 81 percent do. In the FCC’s eighth annual “Broadband Progress Report,” issued last summer, the agency’s Democratic Commissioners announced, for the third year in a row, that broadband deployment in the U.S. is just not happening fast enough.
Despite the efforts of lobbyists, governments across the United States and EU see the writing on the wall: internet access is vital to commerce and areas without a reliable connection will be left behind. That’s why the British government set up Broadband Delivery UK to “to ensure [the UK] has the best superfast broadband in Europe by the end of this parliament.” That’s why the US Dept. of Agriculture is handing out Farm Bill loans and Community Connect Broadband grants to isolated communities like Saint Paul, Alaska and Brownington, Missouri, providing free broadband service for critical community services like police, fire, and rescue, and creating community centers with computers and Internet training programs. (See a list of funded projects on the USDA’s website.)
High-speed networks (3Mbps and up) in America on the National Broadband Map
A map of community broadband networks; the nineteen states colored red have restrictions on publicly-owned networks. Credit: ILSR
The effects of hooking up to high-speed internet are getting hard to ignore. Google Fiber caused a major buzz when it began its broadband experiment in Kansas City. The result? A cluster of start-ups dubbed the Kansas City Startup Village popped up to take advantage of the 1-gigabit connection. The prospect is tantalizing to rural areas, which have been the biggest losers in the 21st century economic landscape. While start-ups might not flock to farming communities in Illinois or Colorado, at least businesses in those areas will have a fighting chance in an increasingly wired world.
And who knows? As they become the America’s go-to destination for next generation wind power, farms could also be transformed by their communities into high-tech epicenters, with speeds that outdo cities. The only losers under this scenario are companies like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. The farmers, for one, can live with that.