States expand rural broadband networks while co-ops fill in gap

In small towns and rural counties, broadband Internet is particularly critical as an economic development tool.

A recent study shows why: The National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center found that rural counties where more than 60 percent of households had broadband experienced higher income growth and lower unemployment (SSTI). It found the inverse to be true for employment in counties with less than 40 percent broadband adoption.

The governors of Alabama and Kentucky have made broadband a priority, both signing executive orders creating new agencies to oversee extension throughout their states.

The biggest inhibitor to rural broadband access is cost. Private utilities can’t recoup their upfront costs to expand fiber networks to sparsely populated areas. Wisconsin is helping to defray these initial costs by providing grants to utilities that bring broadband to rural areas.

But a traditional tool is also proving useful to spread this new technology: co-ops.

In Western Massachusetts, 22 towns have founded WiredWest, a co-op aiming to roll out a $79 million municipal broadband network (American City & County). To join, a town must get 40 percent of households to conditionally agree to purchase the service and achieve a two-thirds majority vote at a town meeting. Places with a history of utility co-ops are naturally positioned to become broadband hubs. Central Missouri has a decades-long history of rural electric co-ops that are now bringing super-fast download speeds to remote customers (Daily Yonder).

Source: International Economic Development Council

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