When the COVID-19 pandemic sent Sally Weldon home to work for 18 months, she had to unplug all devices that use the internet except for her computer before starting the day.
Weldon’s rural home, nestled in Buncombe County’s mountains just outside Weaverville, has limited access to steady internet. In her case, that means no more than one device connected to the internet if she needs to do her work as an information technology professional.
“My granddaughter was visiting from South Korea for a while, and she had to do her remote learning, so she and I swapped who was using the internet,” she said.
Weldon is one of many Western North Carolina residents who struggle to nail down consistent internet connection because of the region’s lack of broadband infrastructure, especially in mountainous or rural areas.
Some WNC local governments are looking to ease this struggle with the help of the American Rescue Plan Act, federal funding intended to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Per the U.S. Department of the Treasury, broadband expansion is one of the acceptable ways to spend ARPA money as the pandemic, which made work and school largely reliant on internet service, emphasized the importance of widespread internet access.
“The urgency of the digital divide became really obvious,” said Nate Denny, secretary for broadband and digital equity for the N.C. Department of Information Technology.
“If you’ve got a couple of kids learning from home, a couple of parents working from home, and you’re trying to see your kid’s pediatrician on a telemedicine app, you need much higher (internet) speeds.”
A pandemic and the importance of broadband
With children logging in to school from kitchen tables and myriad professionals shifting work from offices to living rooms, it became clear to local governments, especially those presiding over rural areas, that there should not only be access to the internet everywhere but also access to good internet everywhere.
Buncombe County, where the state’s IT department reports only 0.15% of residents not having access to the internet, is using a portion of its ARPA money to improve underperforming internet connections. While only a small percentage in the county lack internet access altogether, what they do have access to isn’t consistently high-quality, high-speed broadband.
“The majority of the country is served because they can get something,” Tim Love, Buncombe County’s director of economic development, said referencing the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of “served” as meaning a connection of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mpbs for upload — about enough for one device to stream a show.
“Our point is you can use 25/3 if you want to, but in reality, that’s not good enough. You can’t jump on multiple Zoom calls. You can’t have a kid at home (doing schoolwork). You can’t run a small business.”
Buncombe County, Love said, is following different criteria for what’s considered acceptable internet — 100 Mbps by 20 Mbps, or enough for multiple devices to access the internet at the same time.
According to the state’s Information Technology Department, about 92% of Buncombe County has this speed of internet. But the percentage is significantly lower in other areas of Western North Carolina, such as Graham County, where only 5% have 100/20.
According to census data, roughly 22% of households in Western North Carolina’s 18 counties do not have access to broadband cable, fiber optic or digital subscriber lines — which are considered the most stable internet access providers and most likely to provide 100/20.
Cable, fiber and DSL use external infrastructure, such as underground cables, to provide fast internet and are installed by internet providers, such as Spectrum and AT&T.
While this infrastructure is commonplace in densely populated cities, rural homes like Weldon’s scarcely have access to it and have to source internet access from other services, such as satellites. Census data shows roughly 10% of WNC households use a satellite internet provider.
But Weldon doesn’t have access to satellite internet because of the thick layer of trees covering her home. Instead, she gets internet service through Frontier Communications, which she’s able to get because she also has a home phone line.
“We get about a point to 8 megabits per second,” Weldon said. “(It will) still support things like streaming, so we stream Hulu and Netflix like everybody else. But we also don’t check our phone, email or Facebook on our phones while it’s happening, or (the internet) stalls out.
“Internet through a phone line is not a reliable resource anymore.”
ARPA for broadband
To assist people like Weldon, some WNC local governments are pledging some of their ARPA funds to broadband infrastructure projects. Buncombe, Haywood, Rutherford and Transylvania counties have allocated or earmarked money for the initiative.
Buncombe, Haywood and Transylvania have approved using ARPA funds to match the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant, a program in which the state works with internet providers to expand broadband access. Local governments match what the state invests in the GREAT grant.
Though other counties in the region have not allocated federal recovery dollars toward broadband projects, they still may see ARPA benefit their internet accessibility and quality as the state government has earmarked more than $5 billion for the cause.
North Carolina distributed a portion of its ARPA money to localities that did not receive the funding directly from the federal government. Additionally, following the recommendations of Gov. Roy Cooper, the state legislature divided the remaining ARPA dollars into statewide programs, including broadband expansion.
Denny said $350 million of the state’s ARPA money will go toward supporting the GREAT grant.
Like Buncombe County, North Carolina is acknowledging the disconnect between what’s considered “served” and prioritizing projects that bring 100/20 internet to households, Denny said.
In addition to the GREAT grant, the state is also using ARPA funds to work with local governments through a $400 million Completing Access of Broadband program in which local governments can work directly with internet providers to expand and improve access. A $90 million Broadband Stop Gap Solutions project will also allow local governments more freedom to work directly with providers to identify specific broadband issues.
Despite these programs, solutions that mean solid internet connection can seem far off to people like Weldon and her neighbors, who regularly talk about options to improve their connections. They quickly run out of ideas — left with no choices other than spotty internet through phone lines or satellites.
“I’m thinking through it, trying to keep my husband from doing something rash, like ordering some satellite internet that’s not going to work for us that we’re on a four-year contract for,” she said.
The dedication of federal COVID relief dollars to solve the issue of broadband makes Weldon hopeful for improvement — that students won’t be kicked off the internet mid-algebra lesson, professionals won’t be left staring at a frozen Zoom screen, and she’ll never have to ask her husband to turn off his phone so she can work.
“If electricity can go somewhere, then internet should be there, too,” Weldon said. “And it should be quality internet.”