While North Carolinians living in urban areas are speeding forward on the information highway, many of their rural neighbors – some 226,000 households – are limping along on a rutted country lane – if the lane exists at all.
That’s not the only problem when it comes to internet adoption. More than a million homes can’t afford internet service, an estimated 430,000 households lack a laptop or computer and over a million adults don’t have the digital literacy to take advantage of digital services, according to data from the N.C. Department of Information Technology.
“Approximately 1 million North Carolinians are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Nate Denny, NCDIT’s deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity.
Although it was known before, the pandemic proved how essential high-speed internet is to rural communities. Children and college students need it to access education courses and do research, the elderly and others who live in remote areas need it to access telemedicine, employees need it to work from home, and cottage industry owners need it to promote and run their businesses.
“At this time, the internet is a utility like electricity or gas,” said Jackie Newton, Pender County commissioner. “It’s something you need for your daily life.”
The lack of high-speed internet also has serious economic consequences for rural, internet-deprived communities. Businesses refuse to build there, development dwindles and downtowns wither.
High-speed internet, however, can help turn a faltering community around.
“There’s about $4 of local impact for every dollar invested in broadband,” said Shaun Olsen, president and CEO of local technology service provider CloudWyze.
There’s no question that North Carolina’s rural communities need broadband, but it costs so much to install – from $1,000 to more than $10,000 for a single household – that many providers shy away from these sparsely developed areas.
“It’s so expensive to build in rural areas because there can be miles between each address,” said Victoria Bellamy, public relations manager for FOCUS Broadband. “It makes more sense to build out where houses are stacked on top of each other.”
Federal and state governments have recognized the dire need for broadband in rural areas and are issuing an array of grants equaling billions of dollars to build internet connectivity in remote communities.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Law has earmarked $42 billion for broadband in rural areas; North Carolina, as well as other states, is using monies from the American Rescue Plan to support the effort. Grants include, among others, the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD), Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program, Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, Completing Access to Broadband Program and Broadband Stop Gap Solutions Program.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Denny said. “With the huge increase in federal funding, we have an opportunity to get it right this time.”
North Carolina has set ambitious goals for rural broadband infrastructure. Projects funded through the American Rescue Plan are expected to be completed by 2025 and result in high levels of internet adoption: 98% of the households in the state will have access to high-speed internet connection; 98% of households will subscribe to internet services; and 100% of households with children will subscribe to internet services.
These projects also require an internet speed of 100 megabytes (upload and download speed), or that the service can be scaled to that capability within a few years. That standard cuts out all but fiber, according to Denny.
The new funding opportunities for broadband installation in rural areas are paying off. Large publicly traded providers such as AT&T, multi-state internet service providers, small businesses and telephone and electric member cooperatives are applying for and receiving grants.
In Southeastern North Carolina, CloudWyze and FOCUS Broadband are two service providers taking a leading role in getting high-speed internet to remote communities.
CloudWyze has been an internet service provider since 2012. It has provided those services to rural areas since 2018 and works closely with community leaders to develop solutions for their situation. In some cases, that solution may mean installing fiber, and in some cases, it means installing wireless technology, Olsen said. The important thing is that the community will be getting reliable, fast internet service, he added.
Using this collaborative approach, CloudWyze is expanding broadband services to more than 8,600 underserved and unserved homes in Edgecombe, Harnett, Johnston, Martin and Nash counties with a little over $18 million in grant funding from NCDIT as part of the 2022 GREAT program. CloudWyze is also supplying connectivity to Martin and Nash counties through previously awarded GREAT grants.
Olsen said he appreciates the fact that many of the internet infrastructure grants encourage remote communities and service providers to work together.
“They promote cooperation between the two parties,” Olsen said. “We give the county a seat at the table, and they share the challenges they face in a rural area. We want to help with that.”
FOCUS Broadband, a member cooperative based in Brunswick County, has won numerous grants to supply rural unserved and underserved rural communities with new or faster internet service.
It has secured more than $100 million in grant funding to expand its fiber optic network in rural communities across Southeastern North Carolina, including rural areas in Brunswick, Baden, Columbus, Robeson, Pender, Duplin, Hoke and Scotland counties. It also recently won grants in Chowan and Perquimans counties in Northeast North Carolina. Collectively, those grants will allow the cooperative to serve as many as 30,000 additional households.
In addition, FOCUS Broadband is working on a $100 million, multi-year project to convert the copper and coaxial networks in Brunswick County’s service area to a new 100% fiber optic network, and it recently completed a three-year project to provide fiber optic broadband to more than 3,500 homes in Boiling Spring Lakes.
Four County Electric Membership Corp. is also doing its part to get its customers up to speed internet-wise. It is allowing FOCUS Broadband to use its pre-existing infrastructure to bring fiber-optic broadband to its customers – a move that gives its customers better prices, according to Gregory Sager, the organization’s vice president of member services.
Little of this would be happening without the money from the federal and state governments. Even with the grants, FOCUS Broadband is contributing more than $26 million to complete its projects. CloudWyze is contributing more than $11 million to the projects it is working on.
“We would not be able to expand our network at the rate we are currently expanding in rural communities without these grants,” Bellamy said. “This funding allows companies like ours to provide access to high-speed, reliable internet in many rural communities that may have had to wait decades longer for adequate access.”
Even with adequate funding, installing broadband infrastructure may take longer than the prescribed two years. Often, communities don’t know where all their underground utilities are, and getting permits, supply chain issues and labor shortages also slow things down.
Service providers try to offset these delays by hooking up customers in stages.
“We try to build out as fast as we can,” Bellamy said. “As we build the network, we turn up customers as we go. That gets the internet to the customers as quickly as possible.”
However, all the infrastructure in the world won’t end the digital divide if people can’t afford it, warned Denny. One tool to offset the cost is the Affordable Connectivity Program. It provides up to $30 per month on internet services for those who qualify, up to a $75 per month discount for households on tribal lands, and up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.
FOCUS Broadband takes making the internet affordable a step further. It offers a plan that allows qualifying families to get internet service at no cost. CloudWyze works with cash-strapped institutions like libraries and schools, as well as individuals, on a one-on-one basis to help them afford the internet.
Although closing the digital divide in North Carolina’s rural communities is costly, the consensus is that doing so is more than worth it.
“High-speed internet connection is critical to every aspect of modern life,” Denny said. “You have to have it to participate in the modern economy. The cost per household is justified if you learn how urgent this problem is.”