Western North Carolina is facing a “last-mile broadband crisis” according to preliminary data from a study mapping high-speed Internet access across the region. “Last-mile” refers to service for individual homes and small businesses.

The study, conducted by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, found that only 15 percent of respondents enjoy Internet access that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum speeds of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

Almost half the respondents – 48 percent – report no broadband access via a cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) at their home or business. The most common form of broadband reported was DSL from incumbent telephone companies Frontier or AT&T; it was cited by 37 percent of respondents. No DSL user reported an upload speed that met the FCC’s minimum of 1 Mbps.

Fifteen percent reported using cable broadband service. Cable subscribers were the only respondents whose broadband service met or exceeded the FCC’s minimum standard for upload and download speeds.

“This data confirms our worst fears,” said Wally Bowen, executive director of MAIN. “Reports of sub-par DSL, plus those reporting no access, comprise 85 percent of responses; that’s a huge majority reporting inadequate broadband access.”

Bowen called the results “preliminary” due to the relatively small study sample, but he said it tracks with data released May 13 by the FCC ranking North Carolina last among the 50 states in residential broadband availability (Table 13). [PDF]

Christopher Mitchell, a broadband advocate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, called the findings “disturbing” because inferior access handicaps efforts to build sustainable local economies.

“Such a slow upload speed prevents people from being productive at home in a digital economy that values working remotely,” said Mitchell. “Slow upload speeds make video-conferencing difficult if not impossible. That puts the rural entrepreneur at a competitive disadvantage.”

Vanessa Clark, a McDowell County resident who still uses dial-up, suspects that the lack of broadband access has hurt her property value. “Perhaps moving might be the best option but who wants to buy a home in an area with such limitations?”

The study uses FCC maps predicting broadband availability to let Internet users in 16 mountain counties compare their actual experience with the FCC data. The FCC maps are based on data provided by cable and telephone companies.

Of 240 respondents, 115 reported no access to broadband via cable or DSL at their home or business. The majority of these reports confirm the FCC maps predicting no wireline access. However, 13 respondents citing “no access” reside in locations where the FCC maps said wireline broadband should be available.

Sixteen percent of the “no access” group reported using satellite or fixed wireless broadband services.

“Given the small sample, we need more people to visit the website and document their broadband experience,” said Bowen. The study website uses the same speed test tool used by the FCC.

Participants in the study are also encouraged to share their stories about inadequate broadband access.

Residents in the following counties are eligible to participate in the ongoing study: Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania and

The study is funded by the Rural Policy Action Partnership, which includes the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, the Center for Rural Strategies and the Kellogg Foundation.

-Press release by the Mountain Area Information Networks, shared June 17.

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Angie Newsome was the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at anewsome@carolinapublicpress.org.

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