Citizen Advocacy for High-Speed Internet by Reeshard Scott

We all know that exasperating feeling — watching the loading bar on a webpage creep forward, the seconds turning into minutes as our computers struggle along on minuscule speeds. Many of us thought this was a thing of the past, but for countless Americans slow loads are still a fact of life. I had thought I was safe from slow internet speed when I moved into a new house in 2014, only to find my connection was infinitely worse than what I had at my old house. I decided to do something about it. With the help of Next Century Cities, my neighbors, and my local elected officials I learned to advocate for myself, and in the end a fiber network was deployed to my neighborhood. The following is the story of my nearly two year journey to get high-speed internet access.

In December of 2014, after waiting nearly two years for my house to be built, my family and I were finally able to move in. I had assumed that we would have access to all of the typical high-speed service providers in the area: Charter Communications, AT&T with U-verse, Comcast, and others. It wasn’t until after we moved in that I was told not a single provider would serve high-speed internet to my home.

This was a very tough pill to swallow, as my previous home had download speeds of 45 Mbps. Now, my only option was DSL, and the maximum speed was 3 Mbps.

I do a lot of video production, and the files are very large. Uploading them at 45 Mbps takes a long time — imagine how long it takes at 3 Mbps! I was creating two minute video announcements for my church and they were taking up to an hour and a half to upload. It was faster for me to leave my house, go to my church, upload the video, and come back home than to upload them from home. Playing games online for my kids and connecting our telephones and tablets to Wi-Fi became a luxury. Everything was crippled to a snail’s speed.

What’s worse, I was charged the same amount by AT&T for 3Mbps of DSL service as I was for 45 Mbps of U-Verse service at my last home – $55 a month. Meanwhile, just two streets over my neighbors were able to get 60Mbps from Charter Communications for only $45 a month.

My first step was to reach out to all of the providers in my county to inquire about their future plans to expand high-speed internet offerings to my area. AT&T was the only company that entertained my inquiry.  However, they were very secretive about their plans for fiber deployment and network expansion. So I started researching online to see what else I could do, and I found Next Century Cities. I reached out to Deb Socia, and I told her about my connectivity problem. She was very empathetic to what I was dealing with, and she bounced ideas off me about what I could do to get connected.

Deb directed me to Alan Fitzpatrick, Co-Founder of Charlotte Hearts Gigabit in Charlotte, NC. We spoke on the phone about what Charlotte Hearts was doing, and their strategies for attracting fiber providers to Charlotte, such as Google Fiber. They unified the neighborhoods and businesses, they spoke out, and they listed reasons higher speeds were important.

Alan gave me the skeleton of an argument to rally my neighbors, and I was able to get everyone together. I started telling them, “Look, we’re in a disadvantaged position. We aren’t going to be able to do anything effectively with these speeds, so we need to let our voices be heard!” I got people to start contacting our city officials and speaking out on behalf of the neighborhood whenever the opportunity presented itself.

I contacted my County Commissioner, Bruce Holmes, and I voiced my frustration to him. He was very receptive to my concerns. He suggested I reach out to the Henry Council for Quality Growth, which had received many calls about the lack of high-speed internet access in our area.

Commissioner Holmes also connected me with Elton Alexander, who is on the Stockbridge, GA City Council and runs a blog, Because We Care Atlanta South. I spoke with Elton and convinced him to reach out to his network to start advocating on my behalf.

Commissioner Holmes also invited me to come to a Commission meeting where I was able to present my case before the Commissioners. At the meeting I shared a lot of Charlotte Hearts’ points, including information on economic development, education, small business opportunities, attracting new development, and the big buzz word–millennials. It is essential to attract millennials to ensure our cities keep growing, but the chances of them moving to an area without high-speed internet access are slim to none. So, it really hurts the value of your home not to have access.

Things changed for the better when I found out Georgia’s President of AT&T, Beth Shiroishi, was coming to speak at a weekday lunch meeting sponsored by the Henry Council for Quality Growth. Now mind you, I’m a school teacher and she was speaking at 12pm. But when I found out she was coming, I talked to my principal and said I needed to leave. I was on two wheels going down to meet her.

During the Q&A I told Beth about the disadvantages my family faced without access to high-speed internet service, and I asked her what AT&T planned to do. She was kind, but she asked me to be patient. After the Q&A I approached her and spoke to her without microphones or a bunch of people around. I had my bill with me, and I showed her that I was paying $55 for 3Mbps. 3Mpbs! I was able to talk to her about what a problem this was, and she started working on my neighborhood’s behalf.

As a result, we were included in the first stage of an expansion of AT&T’s U-Verse internet access, which offered about 60 Mbps. After a three month testing period, they gave us access to U-verse GigaPower, a fiber network with up to 1000 Mbps. As new homes in my neighborhood are being built, they will all have fiber access. It has been phenomenal for me because I’m going from waiting hours for things to upload to just a few seconds at the most. It’s fantastic!

Having gone through this process, my advice for anyone trying to get high-speed internet access at home is to unify your neighbors. You need to get on the same page and you need to have the same approach when you’re trying to bring fiber to your area. Make sure to talk to your elected officials. Remember, they are elected by you to work on your behalf. We contacted our elected officials so much that they could not overlook our concerns.

I would also encourage you to have your elected officials join Next Century Cities! That way they can see firsthand what a difference high speed connectivity makes and they can talk to other local leaders about how to ensure everyone in your community has access.

Most importantly, be persistent. It’s hard work to get fiber to your neighborhood, but the benefit of high-speed connectivity makes it all worth it.

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