Frustration with sluggish, expensive or unavailable broadband has prompted a growing number of communities to find other options. Some 89 cities and towns in the U.S. have launched their own fiber-to-the-home networks, which many experts say is the fastest and most reliable way to access the Internet.
The result: Places such as Chattanooga, Tenn., Bristol, Va., and Lafayette, La., now offer Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, or about 100 times faster than today’s average broadband speeds.
In many communities, the catalyst is a local champion, someone with a passion for high-speed broadband and the knack for mobilizing grassroots support. Often a volunteer steps up to fill a leadership role.
Stories about the imagination and determination of these community champions can be inspiring and often surprising. None more so, perhaps, than what Christine Conder has accomplished in a remote farming community in northern England.
Conder had grown increasingly irritated with sluggish and unreliable Internet service in her community. Poor connectivity was affecting the efficiency and productivity of her family farm. With no potential for better broadband in sight, Conder dug deep for a solution — literally. She plowed a trench on her farm and installed her own fiber-optic cable.
She realized that building a network “is not rocket science” and that her neighbors could do the same thing. An idea took hold, and with others from her community, she created a nonprofit organization known as Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) to build and operate a community fiber-optic broadband network.
Residents and businesses can buy shares in B4RN or contribute in other ways. Sometimes it’s a property owner who provides B4RN free access to dig and lay cable. Or a church agrees to host network equipment on its property and uses the connectivity to stream services to congregants unable to attend sermons in person.
Sometimes a farmer will dig a trench for an elderly neighbor, but it’s often the other way around. “As an older person working with many other ‘retired’ people,” Conder notes, “we were commenting the other day that the youngest person digging in the trench was 65. The youngsters are all out at work. The older people in our community are digging for victory, bringing much-needed connectivity into our villages, and getting a new lease of life in the bargain. And six-packs.”
Thus far, B4RN has connected about 350 properties to its network. The service, which costs the equivalent of about $49 per month, provides speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. The network is an asset that makes the community more attractive to existing and potential employers and to residents of all ages.
But Conder often addresses the benefits of high-speed connectivity on a more personal level. Responding to a recent blog post, she noted the opportunity for friends and family to engage in a virtual embrace. “Virtual embrace! that’s a great one… Seeing pixelated babies is not good. We really do want to see our grandchildren properly, and we want them to see us too, no matter how far apart we are.”
Christopher Baker is a senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute, where he works on policy issues related to the availability, affordability and accessibility of essential telecommunications, technology and energy services.
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