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Community Broadband is a Part of Protecting Small Businesses During COVID
On December 7th, Our Revolution Arlington hosted an event which brought together a diverse group to talk about the impact of the ongoing pandemic on small and independent business owners, and what solutions exist for responding:
With new lockdowns looming and federal support stalled indefinitely, what options do state and local governments have to keep small businesses afloat in the months ahead. In addition, how might we strengthen small business over the long term as part of more inclusive community development strategies?
Among panelists were ILSR’s Kennedy Smith (Senior Researcher, Independent Business initiative) and Christopher Mitchell (Director, Community Broadband Networks initiative). They were joined by Donna Grambrell (President/CEO Appalachian Community Capital), Tony Hernandez (Director, Dudley Neighbors, Inc.), and Marjorie Kelly (Executive Vice President, The Democracy Initiative)
Kennedy talked about a recent ILSR report showing the variety of responses available to communities and states to protect small business and ensure a more equitable outcome for economic recovery. Christopher talked about the variety of ways local ownership of information infrastructure can help small business weather a pandemic, but also set up communities for success in fostering business and commercial districts that attract talent, capital, and residents for the next decade.
The other panelists touched on models for preserving local business ownership through temporary equity actions via “economic preservation funds,” the outsized impact of the pandemic on minority-owned businesses and how to help, and the formation of community land trusts to combat gentrification and land speculation.
Watch the recording below.
Three Webinars Offer a Wealth of Learning Opportunities
One silver lining of the ongoing public health crisis is the chance to attend a wide array of virtual events which tackle aspects of community broadband expansion all across the country, in a variety of contexts. This week features three opportunities to hear about what’s going on in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Read on for details.
Blandin Foundation Annual Conference
First up is Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation’s annual conference. It’s gone virtual for 2020, and the organization has taken it as an opportunity to shake things up. Instead of a three-day conference, Blandin is hosting four weeks’ worth of events starting Tuesday, October 6th, at 9am CST.
The conference will feature a combination of panels with updates on everything from technology outreach to telehealth to efforts by community anchor institutions to stay connected, as well as mentoring sessions, regulatory and legislative updates, and feature presentations by leading voices:
When Three Isn't Enough: What Rural Connectivity Options Look Like in North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 413
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks to Tanna Greathouse, a Boone, North Carolina, resident operating an online business, Your Favorite Assistant, from home. Tanna shares her struggle with the lack of connectivity options in the area and what it means to have to sign up for three expensive, overlapping services — DSL, satellite, and mobile — for unreliable, slow, and high-latency Internet connections.
Tanna and Christopher talk about the struggle to perform even basic cloud-based productivity work and how this struggle has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. They talk about what things might look like if there were more local Internet choice and how the rise of telework will likely change how large and small businesses operate in the future.
We’ve covered North Carolina’s efforts at local Internet choice many times before. Find our “Why NC Broadband Matters” podcast series, co-produced with NC Broadband Matters, on the Community Broadband Bits podcast index. Episode topics include the homework gap, telehealth, and broadband mapping. Check out our other coverage of broadband in North Carolina.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show: please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
This show is 16 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
"Disconnected" in Rural North Carolina: A Documentary
“While most of us take a high-speed Internet connection for granted, many living in rural areas feel disconnected,” states North Carolina television station WRAL’s new documentary, “Disconnected,” which first aired on March 19.
The documentary features local officials, healthcare professionals, small business owners, and families from across the state discussing the importance of high-quality broadband access and the struggle to connect rural areas. Though “Disconnected” was recorded before the Covid-19 outbreak forced schools and businesses to close nationally, the ongoing crisis further emphasizes the necessity of getting all North Carolinians connected to affordable, reliable Internet access.
“Disconnected” was created with help from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, and Google Fiber. Watch the documentary below or on the WRAL website.
A Tale of Two Cities
To illustrate the importance of connectivity for everything from education to healthcare, “Disconnected” takes viewers to two small North Carolina towns — one with high-speed Internet access and one without.
In Enfield, home to 2,300 people, businesses and residents alike struggle to get connected, and town officials face difficulties attracting new employers to the area. Enfield Middle S.T.E.A.M. Academy reports that about 60 percent of students don’t have Internet access at home. WRAL interviews one student’s family, which only has unreliable satellite connectivity. “It’s a lot of running around,” says Lashawnda Silver, the student’s mother. “If I don’t provide it for her, she’s going to lose out.”
North Carolina League of Municipalities Shares Business, Residential Stories from Rural Communities
Whether you're a tech entrepreneur, manage a large industrial operation, or you specialize as an artisan who sells niche products online, fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is now a critical utility for your business. A recent SpotLight article from the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) and hosted by WRAL.com, shines a light on the impact of reliable broadband on rural businesses, residents, and local economies.
NCLM provides multiple examples supporting the theory that lack of high-quality connectivity and access to digital tools results in unrealized potential — in jobs, home-based businesses, and small business revenue. A 2019 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests that 66 percent of rural small businesses struggle with poor Internet or mobile phone connectivity.
Sheila Pope and her husband — both attorneys — have no Internet access at home and when their daughter returns home from college, she must make the trek into town to scope out a reliable connection.
"The trend is for more and more online work. She [Pope's daughter] would have to come to our office or go to the coffee shop in town. We got unlimited data through our cell phone provider so that we could use our phones as a hotspot, but that's unreliable and sometimes the connection would go out and she would lose all her work. It's very problematic," Pope said. "People are not going to want to come here to live and businesses aren't going to come here when they can't get what they need to do business in this digital age."
NCLM spoke with Aaron Carter, director of marketing for Rhino Shelf, a storage shelving manufacturer. Only recently has the company been able to subscribe to Internet access faster than 20 Mbps:
Business Leaders, Sign This Letter Before May 2nd To Save Network Neutrality!
At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we recognize the power of small businesses in local communities. As federal lawmakers consider where they stand on the issue of network neutrality protections, small businesses can join forces to let Congress know that they need network neutrality to stay strong. Fight For The Future (FFTF) has launched a campaign that takes advantage of “Small Business Week” and its proximity to a crucial vote involving the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
Sign, Host, Deliver, Speak
FFTF encourages business owners to express their support for network neutrality by signing a short letter they’ve prepared that succinctly addresses the issue for small businesses:
Dear Member of Congress,
We are companies who rely on the open Internet to grow our business and reach customers online. We are asking Congress to issue a “Resolution of Disapproval” to restore net neutrality and the other consumer protections that were lost when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order in December 2017.
Users and businesses need certainty that they will not be blocked, throttled or charged extra fees by Internet service providers. We cannot afford to be left unprotected while Congress deliberates.
We will accept nothing less than the protections embodied in the 2015 order. Please ensure the FCC keeps its tools to protect consumers and business like ours.
Thank you for considering our views.
Fight for the Future
Thousands of businesses have already signed on to the letter to be delivered to members of Congress on May 2nd, the high point of “Small Business Week.”
FFTF also offers suggestions, resources, and media materials for local folks who want to attend an event happening in their area or who want to organize a local event. If you want to organize a letter delivery, FFTF offers a package of resources that includes steps to take, graphics and media for outreach, recruitment ideas, and points to consider when talking to the press. It’s all you need in one place — you add the energy.
Missourian Reveals Rural Rubs Without Business Broadband
Directly north of Springfield, Missouri, sits Hermitage, a rural community of less than 500 residents. With only a few more than 200 households in Hermitage, it isn’t surprising that none of the big incumbent providers want to install the infrastructure to offer businesses or residents high-quality connectivity. A recent Missourian article described what it’s like for businesses in a community whose owners need fast, affordable, reliable Internet access when it just isn’t available from the national ISPs.
In Hermitage, entrepreneurs like local storekeepers cringe on the days when customers want to pay with credit or debit cards. Often their unreliable CenturyLink DSL service fails, sometimes for extended periods, which cuts into their revenue. Cindy Gilmore, who owns a local convenience store, has to either track down customers or take a loss when Internet access fails during mid-transaction and she restarts her modem.
Gilmore pays $89 per month to CenturyLink for service that is advertised as “up to” 1.5 Megabits per second (Mbps) download. Her speed test result on November 12th was .5 Mbps. Two weeks later a similar test reached the advertised speed and then two days later fell to .4 Mbps, which eliminated her ability to process credit card transactions, work from the office, or look up information she needed for supplies.
Rufus Harris works from home as an online car dealer and relies heavily on Internet access. As part of his work, he researches auto recalls and Carfax reports. The only option for Harris at his home office is CenturyLink and he pays $39 per month for residential “up to” 1.5 Mbps Internet access. He often finds himself, however, renting motel rooms for up to $400 per month because his Internet service at home goes down.
“It’s a shame when you pay for a service that you don’t receive,” Harris said. “We’re supposed to get at least 1.5 (Mbps) or up to, and most of the time it’s not near that good. A lot of the time, it might take 2 minutes to change from one page to the next.”
No Co-ops Yet
NTCA Survey Examines Indie Telcos And Fiber Deployment
When it comes to rural areas, it’s no secret that national providers have little interest in serving the sparsely populated communities. Cooperatives and small local providers typically pick up the slack but it isn’t easy. In a recent survey indicated that small rural telephone companies are overcoming hurdles to deploy fiber and making long-term plans to continue the trend. Furthermore, rural subscribers are proving that they are hungry for high capacity connectivity.
Local ISPs Are Doing It
Approximately 89 percent of “NTCA 2016 Broadband/Internet Availability Survey Report” revealed that the expense of Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) deployment was the most difficult barrier to break through. Even though they faced the difficult problem of financing, 52 percent of survey respondents in the midst of fiber deployments in the spring of 2017 were serving at least half of their customers with FTTH.
Planning For The Future
Fiber is the future for most of the survey respondents. Eighty-two percent reported long-term fiber strategies with 66 percent of those with strategies planning on offering FTTH to at least half of their customers. Another 39 percent of those with long-term fiber strategies will offer fiber to the node to more than 75 percent of their customers by the end of 2019. Thirty-one percent of local telcos with long-term fiber plans who responded to the survey report said that they have already completed their fiber deployment plans.
Subscribers Want More
According to survey respondents, rural subscribers are choosing faster speeds tiers. Relative to the same survey one year ago, the demand for download speeds in excess of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) more than doubled from eight percent of subscribers to 17 percent of subscribers. As the percentage of subscribers choosing a faster speed tier is increasing, the number of subscribers signing up for slower speeds is decreasing. The report describes rural subscriber behavior as, “moving up the broadband speed chain” and says that “…providers need to be prepared to offer them the level of service they demand.”
What Does The Survey Tell Us?
Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Connecting New Accelerator Program
The Roanoke Broadband Valley Authority (RVBA) was busy early this legislative session helping to fight off a bill in the Virginia Legislature aimed at limiting local authority. Now that the bill has been all but neutralized by grassroots efforts, RVBA can dedicate 100 percent of its time to improving connectivity and economic development in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.
Accelerating, Mentoring, Connecting
The RVBA just announced that its network is providing fast, affordable, reliable dark fiber services to a regional business accelerator in downtown Roanoke. The Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP) is a collaboration between the city of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. In a press release, Shivaji Samanta, Director of Information and Educational Technologies at Virginia Western said:
“Virginia Western has collaborated with the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority to provision fiber connectivity between its main campus and the two downtown Roanoke sites at the Claude Moore Education Center and the new entrepreneur training facilities inside the RAMP building. The project, delivered on time and within budget, provides VWCC with dedicated connectivity to its off-campus locations at speeds limited only by the equipment at the end-points for a fixed monthly cost.”
RAMP is located in an historic building that was once the Gill Memorial Hospital; the city used a $600,000 state grant to renovate the building and transform it into an incubator. VWCC will be offering business education courses at the facility and will offer faculty support, and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council will develop mentorship and networking opportunities. Members of the Council also lead the RAMP Advisory Board.
Connecting the Business Community
This is the latest in what is sure to be more connections offered by the RVBA. Last fall, finance company, Meridium, signed up with the publicly owned network. The company needed dark fiber for Internet access and data transport for its downtown headquarters.
According to RVBA President and CEO Frank Smith:
Holland, Michigan, Will Expand Pilot To More Of Downtown
In January 2016, Holland, Michigan, made commencing fiber-optic Internet access to residential neighborhoods its number one goal for fiscal year 2017. They’re a little behind schedule, but the town is now moving forward by expanding a pilot project in order to serve a larger downtown area.
It's Really Happening
The Holland Board of Public Works (BPW) held an informational meeting on March 13th to answer questions from the community and share plans for the potential expansion. About a year ago, we reported on the results of a study commissioned by the city in which, based on a take rate of about 40 percent, 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) connectivity would cost residents about $80 per month. Small businesses would pay approximately $85 per month and larger commercial subscriber rates would run around $220 per month. The update on the plan confirms those figures, noting that the four businesses that tested the pilot services had positive experiences. As a result, BPW feels it’s time to expand to more of downtown.
"If it goes really well we hope to be able to expand the service out as far into the community as we can," said Pete Hoffswell, broadband services manager at BPW.
The expansion is planned for construction in June and July, with service testing in August. Actual delivery would be in September, BPW estimates.
BPW will use a boring technique to place conduit and fiber below ground so there will be minimal disruption. No streets will be closed. Next, BPW will get construction bids, evaluate them, and present them to the City Council for approval.
Not An Impulse Decision
Holland has had dark fiber in place for decades for the municipal electric operations. Later BPW extended it to schools and businesses that needed high capacity data services. After years of incremental expansions, the network is now more than 150 fiber miles throughout the city.