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Talk of spreading broadband internet access to the far reaches of North Carolina as an economic development engine and an equalizer in the education divide is as old as dial-up service and squawking modems.
A legislative proposal to overhaul North Carolina’s broadband rules may accelerate the long-sputtering debate over the state’s role in ensuring access to high-speed internet service.
Also pushing the conversation forward is a new report that examines the urgency of improved access for the state’s economic future.
Old issue, new urgency
While there have been past breakthroughs, for all the discussion and initiatives through the years, the pace of fulfilling the promise of widespread broadband has slowed to a crawl.
That’s especially true as the law of diminishing returns kicks in and further expansion means extending infrastructure and service to harder-to-reach areas that are more sparsely populated.
This year, in both the legislative session ahead and throughout the 2018 election cycle, broadband will be again touted as the key to economic development for North Carolina’s small towns and rural regions and an important way to bridge the urban-rural divide in growth and opportunity.
But with heavily entrenched interests and bureaucratic hurdles from the local to federal level buffering change, the state’s ability to download a digital future remains a question mark.
In a recent interview with Carolina Public Press, Erin Wynia, legislative counsel for the NC League of Municipalities, said she thinks there is a genuine interest in making the necessary changes to state laws to drive more public and private investment in broadband service.
Since the legislature’s last major rewrite of laws governing broadband expansion in 2011, the importance of the service and integration into more fields makes legislative changes even more necessary, Wynia said.
“Education is probably the most gripping and illustrative example of why this infrastructure, this service has gone from something that is an amenity to something that is required,” she said. “A lot of learning has gone online.”
So have medical services. Wynia said medical providers see broadband access as an increasingly important tool in reaching rural areas.
As those areas lose population and rural clinics and hospitals close and consolidate, using online diagnostics and check-ins has become an essential strategy for filling the gaps.
“Tele Health is another area that is absolutely driving this discussion in a way you didn’t hear seven years ago when we last really had this debate,” Wynia said.
Wynia is the co-author of a new report, “Leaping the Digital Divide,” which details the legal, financial and technical challenges the state faces in expanding broadband and a potential roadmap for necessary policy changes.
The 39-page report highlights the growing digital divide in North Carolina driven by both by the increasing integration of online resources in education, health care and business; and the persistent lack of investment in extending high-speed service to all areas of the state.
“Few people today question that broadband has become essential infrastructure, fundamental to commerce, education, health care and entertainment,” the report begins.
“Nonetheless, more than two decades into the digital revolution, many areas of North Carolina lack access to adequate broadband service, and even densely-populated areas can lack the kinds of internet speeds needed for business to thrive.”
After a long pause, the legislature appears ready to make changes that would clear the way for more broadband expansion, Wynia said.
“I have a sense that legislators are more frustrated by the lack of broadband service, not just in rural areas but in pockets of urban areas, than I have seen in the past decade,” she said. “I do think they are searching for other solutions.”
The lynchpin of the new model, she said, is to create a flexible structure for public-private partnerships to be created with public investment focused on infrastructure and private investment in providing the service.
It’s a model that has worked throughout the country, she said, and likely the only politically feasible approach here. For such a system to work in North Carolina, Wynia said, it has to be flexible, allowing “natural partners” in different areas to work together.
“These will all look different depending where you are across the state,” she said. “I think some of this is going to depend on the geography.”
Wynia said she expects that, if the legislature makes the necessary changes, it won’t just be traditional telecom and cable companies involved. Partnerships between electric cooperatives and counties would also be possible and in some cases could be the first to take advantage of a new structure.
The state’s major internet providers have been cool to opening up markets to more participants, but not to the idea of partnerships with local governments.
In an email response to a Carolina Public Press inquiry about the new report and changing state law on public private partnerships, Linda Johnson, spokesperson for CenturyLink replied: “We believe the best approach is to explore workable solutions with existing internet service providers. CenturyLink will continue to work closely with communities, local leaders and policymakers on creative public-private partnerships that bring high-speed internet services to more homes and businesses. These creative solutions can bring the technologies communities need and the expertise to run a network, as well as the ability to plan for future upgrades in a dynamic environment where technology changes rapidly, while limiting the financial risk to citizens.”
The push for Bright Futures
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The report, which Wynia co-authored with longtime local broadband advocate Joanne Hovis, was released in late March at a press conference conducted at the legislature in conjunction with state Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, the main sponsor of The BRIGHT Futures Act.
The legislation, House Bill 68, attempts the first major rewrite of broadband rules since controversial legislation in 2011 that favored a private sector system and closed off expansion of service initiated by the public sector.
Szoka’s bill, which sets up a legal framework for public-private partnerships along with a new grant program, passed the House last April in a 109-8 vote, but the Senate never took it up. Because it passed the House, the bill is eligible to be taken up by the General Assembly again in this year’s short session, which opens May 16.
At last month’s press conference re-introducing the bill, Szoka, who last year brokered a breakthrough deal between power companies and solar advocates, said it’s imperative that the state take action whether through his bill or some other vehicle.
Without an effort to connect “every last house on every dirt road from the mountains to the sea,” he said, the state’s rural areas will fall further behind.
“We continue to talk about the urban-rural divide and we think we can solve it with money or by luring companies to rural areas,” Szoka said. “That really isn’t the answer. The answer in today’s day and age is to get the whole state connected to high-speed broadband. Without that we lose a really valuable tool to drawing companies to rural areas.”
Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, who joined Szoka, said broadband is now critical 21st Century infrastructure: “It is not a luxury anymore. It is no more a luxury than access to roads, water, sewer or electricity.”
Corbin said it’s not just about recruiting businesses, but about keeping them. Lack of broadband continues to drive people who want to start or expand businesses away from rural areas, he said. “We hear these stories of people that love and are attached to these places, but they’re forced to leave because they can’t make a go of it financially without the necessary infrastructure,” he said
Wynia said local governments are still looking for additional flexibility to be added to the bill for public-private partnerships to work. One fix needed is that state law doesn’t give local governments the authority to raise funds and spend them on broadband, even through revenue bonds, which under the partnership model would be paid back through leasing plans with service providers.
“We think (the bill) needs some changes in order to effectively authorize local governments to participate in these partnerships, so I view it as very much still under negotiation,” she said.
Facts on the ground
As the recent broadband report points out, perception is a big part of the problem.
Under the official definition the minimum speeds considered broadband are a download speed of 25 mbps and an upload of 3 mbps.
If you look at an official map of broadband coverage of North Carolina, service extends far and wide throughout the state, into many of the nooks and crannies of the western highlands and even Dismal Swamp. According to the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, which uses data provided by the Federal Communications Commission, 93.7 percent of North Carolina households have access to high-speed internet.
On the ground, however, the reality is very different from the map.
Wynia said the coverage looks much better than it really is for a couple of reasons.
First, federal guidelines allow providers to report an entire census tract as served by broadband even if it only extends to one house in the tract.
“It’s perverse because when you get to these rural areas the census blocks are enormous in terms of geography,” Wynia said. “It looks like a lot of North Carolina is covered when we all know on the ground that’s just not happening.”
Second, areas advertised as having broadband may not truly receive it.
“That’s not unique to rural North Carolina, that happens right here in Raleigh where I live,” she said.
A high-speed line might be available at the street, she said, but if an older, copper line runs to the house, the service is limited. “The technology will determine what is actually delivered,” she said.
To get a better idea of what is really happening on the ground the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office has launched a crowd-sourced mapping project asking residents to log their upload and download speeds into a central database. The project’s interactive map shows official coverage area and the advertised service.
BIO Director Jeff Sural said since the project began last summer about 4,000 residents have registered their speed test results.
Sural said the plan is to release county-level maps with heat bubbles showing service levels once the project gathers enough data to represent a solid sample of an area. Individual household results won’t be made available, he said. Sural said initial information should be released this summer.
BIO is also working with counties that have collected their own data to see if it can be integrated with the project. The aim, he said, is to create a more accurate picture of what service is like throughout the state.
Even though the project is still gathering data, some trends are already starting to emerge that seem to support what’s being heard anecdotally, Sural said.
“The interesting thing is that the people who are reporting that they are served by the cable company or fiber to the home are reporting that the speeds are pretty accurate or in some cases higher than what they’re contracted for,” Sural said.
“The folks that are on DSL or the old copper phone lines are tending to see slower service than what they’ve contracted for. Those are the two trends we’re starting to see as the number come in.”
Sural said having the most accurate information is important on a number of levels. It’s aimed to assist policy makers, he said, but also can help areas that are inaccurately listed as served by broadband in federal grant applications.
The Broadband Information Office crowd-sourced mapping project information — with the map and how to run a speed test and enter your information — is at this link.
The Future is Fiber
There are parallels between the electrification of rural North Carolina, which took public investment to eventually get service to the previously mentioned last houses on the dirt roads in the far reaches of the state.
There are parallels as well to cable and cellular service where the private sector cherry-picked the profitable areas and left a spotty patchwork in harder to serve regions.
Broadband service in North Carolina is somewhere in between. Even less available is the next step, the kind of fiber infrastructure that can support truly high speeds.
Public investment by the state has extended fiber to every public school, university and community college, but few students have similar access at home.
The same is true for businesses not situated along the clusters of available fiber in the state, which now reaches about 15 percent of the population.
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At last month’s press conference, Angier Mayor Lew Weatherspoon said his town is fortunate to have broadband in most areas, but to take advantage of its location and nearby Campbell University, Angier needs to tap into fiber optic lines already running through the area. Without being able to include fiber and its higher bandwidth and speeds as part of the infrastructure, a planned business park doesn’t make sense.
“We do not have the ability and the finances to tap into that fiber,” Weatherspoon said. “We need a business partner. Without high speed internet, the business park can’t become a reality.”
The quest for fiber isn’t just about business, it’s also an increasingly important amenity for the leisure industry.
Emerald Island Town Commissioner Jim Normile said fiber’s unlimited bandwidth is desperately needed to handle demands of the state’s tourism industry along the beach towns of Bogue Banks. When the tourists return, he said, it’s noticeable.
“We do not currently have the bandwidth to support this cluster of the tourism industry,” he said.
Starting this month, Emerald Island’s population goes from 4,000 year round residents to 40,000 at summer’s peak. Most of those seasonal visitors have plenty of time on their hands and a streaming account or two.
“If you have four people come across the bridge on vacation,” he said. “Those people are likely carrying six to eight devices. That sucks up a lot of bandwidth.”
Without competition Normile said he doesn’t see improvements like fiber or even basic broadband for some of the fishing communities coming soon.
Normile said to connect the rural communities and stay competitive with other tourist destinations, the state has to make changes. “We need the the rules changed,” Normile said.
In Carteret County, working with the local electric cooperative makes sense, he said. Other areas might have different opportunities. Local governments, he said, have to be given more latitude to find partners. “We need the cuffs removed.”
Across the state from Bogue Banks, Sylva Mayor Lynda Sossamon said she feels the same pressures from local businesses and mountain tourists. And Sossamon shares the frustration of the officials in Angier over not being able to tap into nearby fiber lines.
“It’s really not reliable in our area,” she said of the local services that are available. Like many places, service in Sylva falls off away from downtown. “It’s something I’m really passionate about because I think its deterring economic growth in our area and it also is bad for the students because they fall behind without access in their home.”
Sylva is counting on being able to attract businesses as part of its new economic development plan, she said, but without a partnership to improve service that will be a struggle.
“Without high speed internet cities can’t thrive,” she said. “Even small ones like us.”