Broadband access ‘a win for rural North Carolina’

This article originally appeared on Blue Ridge Now by Maxim Tamarov.

Jones Senior High School senior Bryan Zavala spent a recent evening at Jones County Center, using the free internet there to work on stoichiometry problem sets for his college chemistry class.

Like many high school students living in rural areas across Eastern North Carolina, Zavala has been utilizing public WiFi to complete homework and study for exams because of the lack of high-speed internet at home.

Zavala, 17, takes five classes at Lenoir Community College and said he uses broadband to complete his work almost daily. From the outskirts of Trenton where Zavala lives, the nearest location with free WiFi access is about a 15-minute drive. When that is not available to him, he resorts to using his limited cell phone data plan.

“It’s very difficult to do it on a phone,” Zavala said of his assignments. “It makes the work much harder than usual.”

Students are just one of the demographics expected to benefit from the funding of high-speed broadband solutions for rural counties, following a bi-partisan vote earlier this month in the state legislature.

Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT)

Governor Roy Cooper signed the rural broadband mini-budget (H387) into law on Oct. 14, funding the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program at $15 million annually for 10 years. H387 ensures high-speed internet providers are matched by funds from the state in their building of broadband infrastructure.

According to Tiffany Gladney, policy and government affairs manager at the North Carolina Rural Center, the policy will fund counties such as Onslow — an expansion on the program that was introduced by N.C. Senator Harry Brown and N.C. Representative Dean Arp in 2017.

“We really salute the leaders across the aisle,” Gladney said of the mini-budget. “This is without a doubt a win for rural North Carolina.”

This comes on the heels of Cooper’s approval in May of nearly $10 million in GREAT grant funding for 14 companies to bring high-speed broadband access to 19 Tier 1 counties, according to the governor’s website. Jones County, for example, will receive service from Eastern Carolina Broadband (ECB).

Susan Myers, co-founder and CEO of ECB, said the Pink Hill-based provider already provides service in parts of Duplin and Lenoir counties and currently serves about 500 customers.

The company was founded two years ago, Myers said, “primarily as a social investment” to bring broadband to rural areas.

“Our community will fall behind if we don’t do it,” Myers said of the ECB rationale. “People need internet. They need it yesterday.”

Steve Goodson, Jones-Onslow Electric Membership Corporation vice president of energy services, said it is generally easier for internet providers to work with electric co-ops because the latter already have infrastructure in place on which to lay fiber optic cables.

“If you’re a provider trying to get out to a rural area, you see electric poles out there as a benefit because it saves you construction costs,” Goodson said.

But the co-op is still only in the beginning stages of what might eventually be a broadband partnership. Only two providers have reached out to them so far.

ECB does not connect fiber optic cables to each home or use satellite, Myers explained. Instead, the company buys space on structures such as water towers and grain elevators in a desired area and from there beams down broadband to anyone within a four mile radius. ECB will also be using the emergency medical services (EMS) tower in Trenton for their Jones County broadband roll-out.

“We take the fiber optics and then we beam it from the water tower, which is a much more affordable way,” Myers said. “It would take 30 years to get fiber to every home.”

Myers said getting broadband to all of Jones County, a Tier 1 county, will take about two years.

The tier designation is set by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, according to the N.C. Commerce website, and ranks counties from Tier 1 to Tier 3 based on their unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita. Onslow, Carteret and Craven are all Tier 2 counties as of the 2019 rankings. Duplin, Jones and Lenoir are Tier 1 counties — meaning they are among the 40 most distressed counties in the state.

Myers said ECB will start to look at expanding into the rural areas of Onslow bordering Jones County once Jones is fully covered by high-speed internet.

Broadening the possibilities

Access to affordable, high-quality broadband opens up a lot of possibilities for rural populations, according to Gladney. Broadband allows residents to do homework and pursue degrees, receive telehealth, and open small businesses.

“In education today, a lot of classes are taught on the internet,” Brown, who represents Onslow and Jones counties, said. “It really disadvantages those students that don’t have access.”

According to Christy Torres, digital learning and teaching facilitator at White Oak High School, students rely on broadband access not only to do homework, but to research and to supplement their learning as well.

There are pockets of rural areas where some White Oak students live, according to Torres, such as on Deppe Road and out towards Maysville. Many of those students do not have the same access to the internet at home as some of their fellow students.

“I think it’s more (about) giving our students equitable access,” Torres said.

Onslow County Schools Executive Director of Community Affairs Brent Anderson explained these pockets are common not just to the White Oak jurisdiction but across the entire county.

While 17-year-old White Oak students De-Shauna Cruz and Attiyya Hasan-Hussein are not residents of a rural areas, they are examples of the kinds of lengths students have to resort to if they don’t have internet access at home.

Hasan-Hussein said she tries to download what she can at school and supplements this with her cell phone.

Cruz has been using a portable WiFi hotspot to connect to the internet and do homework assignments and group projects when she is not at school. Before she received a hotspot through the county’s Sprint 1 Million partnership, Cruz said she was restricted to using her phone as a hotspot. It was not a sustainable model, because her data plan, like Zavala’s, was not unlimited.

Currently, Torres said, White Oak partners with Sprint to give out portable WiFi devices to students who need access at home. But this is not the most effective solution, as those hotspots only work in Sprint coverage areas.

The Sprint initiative began with White Oak and Jacksonville High School, according to Anderson, but has since spread to every high school in the county.

For Cruz, the lack of reliable broadband access at home means she often had to stay late after classes to work on assignments. Sometimes, it means she has to go to friends’ house so she could use their WiFi. And occasionally, it means explaining to a teacher she was unable to complete an assignment on time because she was unable to connect to the internet.

“As an honors and A.P. student I don’t really like being late,” Cruz said. “It’s just not something I do. I like being on time or ahead.”

While there are ways for students to get done what they need to get done for school without online access, Torres said, broadband access is a vital tool in the modern-day learning toolkit.

“This is the generation that that’s how they learn,” Torres said. “From YouTube tutorials to researching online, Torres added, “It’s no longer them having to sit (in class) to get the information. They can get it online anytime when they want it.”

‘It’s about time’

Gladney explained the grant will act as an incentive for broadband providers to work with the state and offer services in areas they have been reluctant to offer service in the past.

“A lot of these internet service providers aren’t going out to these underserved areas because it doesn’t make sense for their business,” Gladney said.

Gladney explained that when John Coggan, former director of advocacy at the Rural Center, and Patrick Woodie, current president of the Rural Center, took a journey across the 80 rural counties in the state to ask leaders what mattered most to their constituents — broadband came up as an issue consistently.

Brown, too, said that he was inspired to work on the issue after hearing from his constituents.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people in my district who can’t get internet,” Brown said.

According to Torres, teachers at White Oak will continue doing what they can to provide their students with a level playing field. But as someone who has been following the rural broadband policy news, she said she is excited to see that broadband may soon be coming to Eastern North Carolina..

“It’s about time,” Torres said.

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