Leveraging our community’s best requires better broadband

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Bob Scott  – Franklin Mayor

Those of us fortunate enough to live in communities where natural amenities abound know just how attractive these places can be to people who define their lives by recreational pursuits that are tied to our streams, rivers and mountains.

In Macon County and Franklin, where I am mayor, I see it every day, whether hikers setting out along the Appalachian trail, kayakers and rafters rolling down the Nantahala or Cullasaja rivers, or fly fishers plying the smaller waters all around.

The pull of nature is strong.

But we also live in a time of global urbanization. Economies of scale, proximity to evolving technology, and economic opportunity in our urban centers tug at our young people.

As a result, many rural communities struggle with population loss, declining tax bases and challenges providing expected services to the residents who remain.

The ability to leverage natural and other amenities, as well as the uniqueness of each of our communities, is how we reverse those trends. But doing so becomes much more difficult when communities lack what today is a necessary and basic form of infrastructure: reliable broadband.

The towns across our region have so much to offer young entrepreneurs and young families, and we know that they see that. But how many cannot make a full-time transition to these towns because broadband access remains inconsistent and even unavailable in some places?

And how many of our existing businesses suffer lost opportunities or are unable to recruit those with specialized skills and knowledge for the same reason? Even our municipalities face these issues as they recruit people to fill local government jobs. That is especially the case when a spouse operates a home-based business requiring reliable, high-speed internet to connect to the larger world.

Legislation now in the North Carolina House, the FIBER NC Act, holds great promise to close this digital divide. It would better enable local governments to partner with internet service providers to bring reliable internet service to  homes and businesses.

The legislation also would allow local governments to receive grants to help lay fiber and build other infrastructure that could then be leased to the private internet service providers. Under current state law, Franklin and other municipalities cannot accept grants for this purpose from entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Golden Leaf Foundation, even as local governments in other states can pull down grant funding.

The General Assembly must recognize that our rural communities cannot wait. The time to pass the FIBER NC Act and bring all available resources to the table to address our state’s digital divide is now.

Bob Scott is mayor of Franklin and chair of the N.C. Mayors Association.

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