Shortly after online dating chat rooms appeared, a cartoon poked fun at the anonymity they afforded.
The caption, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog,” ran below a sketch of a dog at a keyboard.
About that time, the world was realizing that if the Internet could help a mutt get a date it could also provide work opportunities. People need not go to an office; they just needed good Internet service.
As many rural communities stagnate economically and many rural Americans say they don’t want to live where the jobs are, in urban areas, the Internet offers a solution. People can work remotely, either as employees or entrepreneurs.
But the hang-up in North Carolina’s rural areas and small towns is often the lack of first-rate, state-of-the-art Internet service.
Susan Crawford, a noted writer on connectivity issues, wrote of the promise that Google Fiber offered several years ago with its experiment in bringing ultra-high speed service to customers. On online site Backchannel, she wrote in March that Google Fiber not only promised to build a modern network, it also prompted other providers to improve.
Overhead costs stalled that experiment, however. Labor costs to build out a fiber optic system that runs to businesses and residences even in densely populated urban areas are astronomical. Forget about rural areas.
Private companies are not going to make such huge infrastructure investments when the payoff is 10 years or more in the future. Across America, some local officials foresaw this problem a decade ago and initiated municipal Internet projects. Wilson, N.C., was a leader in doing so.
That effort, however, was seen as government intrusion into private business and the 2011 General Assembly banned such public-private partnerships, although Wilson’s system was grandfathered in and it did expand to nearby Pinetops.
So, today communities don’t have publicly owned utilities providing Internet service and they don’t have the kind of high-speed networks needed to draw jobs, either. The private sector has not stepped in.
(Higher Education Works, an organization that supports the UNC system, recently reported that the N.C. School of Science and Math offers Internet-based courses to high school students across the state but that many students in small towns must go to a public library or a fast food outlet to get a signal strong enough to receive the classes.)
This year, House Bill 68 would have legalized such public-private partnerships for broadband service, but it did not pass.
That leads to the obvious question for legislators: Whaddya gonna do?
This year, the legislature passed a bill authorizing a new technology, called small cell wireless, that avoids some of those costs. Such technology has shortcomings, however, Crawford wrote, resulting from the limitations of Wi-Fi signals.
Crawford’s suggestion has public utilities created to build the infrastructure in towns and counties. Using public bonds, the payback could be stretched out over 10 or more years. Any number of private companies could then lease those lines to serve customers. There would be commercial competition based on price and quality.
This year, House Bill 68 would have legalized such public-private partnerships for broadband service, but it did not pass. The major corporations that now control the Internet service provider industry don’t want that competition. The legislative leadership sided with these companies even though economic development in their hometowns is stagnant without needed first-rate Internet service.
No doubt, the opponents of such public-private partnerships have some eloquent argument to support their decision, a diatribe about the evils of big government and the dangers of public indebtedness.
In the meantime, jobs go elsewhere, businesses don’t get started, small towns stagnate and a lot of young people move to the big city where there is opportunity.
Even a dog knows that isn’t right.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.