Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Thousands Without Internet in Some North Carolina Counties

Alamance and Randolph counties are nearly 5.5 percentage points behind the national average for broadband connectivity, making learning and working remotely very expensive, or impossible, for many.

(TNS) — Every morning, Alamance County, N.C., resident Dawn Sutton wakes up and prepares for work. In a time when many are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutton has faced a unique challenge: She cannot get Internet access in her home.

Sutton lost her job at the start of the pandemic. When she found new employment, she learned she would need to complete eight weeks of training online. Sutton asked her son if she could work from his home each day for those eight weeks, to which he agreed.

Ten months later, Sutton is still working at her son's house every day.

"I've been there since October," she explained. "It disrupts his life because I'm taking up his third bedroom. I know that I have to have a job and I can't do it from my own home, so it has that ripple effect on, you know, putting other people out."

Sutton lives on a rural country road in southern Alamance County where Internet cables stop just a mile and a half short of her home. For the past several years, she and her neighbors have periodically reached out to Internet service providers asking them to extend access and have continuously been shot down.

"The companies, especially Spectrum, basically monopolize the Internet world. They don't care. They just don't want to spend the money to go run a line down country roads, because there are not enough people, not enough money to be made for the cost of running the network. But it impacts people's lives," she said.

Spectrum representatives declined to comment on Sutton's request for a service expansion without the Times-News providing her address, which we were not at liberty to do.

However, spokesperson Scott Pryzwansky said that Spectrum is committed to expanding Internet access in rural areas.

"We continue to invest in deploying broadband to more unserved areas of the state, as shown by our RDOF commitment and our support for the GREAT Act, which provides state grants to help reach more unserved areas," he said. "We and other broadband providers face deployment challenges associated with access to poles, especially in rural areas, which makes it more difficult to build out quickly and efficiently. We support efforts in the Legislature, led by Rep. Jason Saine and Sen. Ralph Hise, to reform those rules and bring greater investment in broadband to reach more unserved areas."

According to Pryzwansky, Charter (the company that owns Spectrum) expanded service to 2.5 million customers nationwide in the last three years, about one-third of which were in rural areas. Charter expanded to about 114,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina in 2020 alone, Pryzwansky added.

Sutton is not the only one in her household that has felt the impact. Her daughter, who finished high school in 2020, was forced to use a cell phone hotspot every day to complete her schoolwork during the pandemic. Personal hotspots like these turn your cell phone into a temporary WiFi router allowing you to connect other devices to the Internet, but the service often comes with a hefty price tag.

"All these kids out here are doing homeschool. They have to use hotspots on their phones or go somewhere else, like me. ... My daughter graduated in 2020 from high school. We had to use hotspots for her off of our Sprint phones. We had to go to a higher Sprint plan that gives us unlimited data because we're using so much data without it," Sutton explained.

"The charges get insane," she added. "I was paying about $166 a month on two cell phones with Sprint because I had unlimited data. So, you're spending money in other areas versus $50 Internet only."

The lack of Internet access, despite availability just up the road from her home, leaves Sutton feeling ignored and disadvantaged.

"People need to work, and you want to work ... but when you find a job and it says remote, you're like oh great, I can do this, this is a wonderful thing. But you can't find an Internet service provider in your area. So you have to pass on it," she said.

"(Internet service providers) can make money, but we can't make money. They want to save money by not offering it, but yet they want to put more money into fiber optics and making it faster and faster and faster instead of building more towers and running more lines. They cater to what they already have, and they don't care about getting new customers," she added.

Sutton is not alone in her struggle to get reliable Internet.

Between 2015 and 2019, the number of households in Alamance County with broadband Internet access has risen over 11 percent to a total of 81.12 percent. In nearby Randolph County, the percentage of households with broadband is even lower. According to 2019 census data, only 75.7 percent have broadband access, leaving over 30,000 people without Internet in their homes.

In 2015, for example, the national average was 77.24 percent. That same year, only 69.46 percent of Alamance County households had broadband, nearly 8 percent behind the national average. Similarly, Randolph County households only had 64.54 percent of households covered. Five years later, the national average had risen to 86.61 percent, but Alamance and Randolph counties still lagged behind at 81.12 percent, nearly 5.5 percent behind the average.

While Internet access has increased over time across the board, both Randolph and Alamance counties are still below the national average when it comes to the percentage of households with Internet access.

According to state reports, most of the areas lacking service are the more rural neighborhoods in the northern and southern ends of the county.

What Are The Barriers to Broadband Access?

Kathleen Stansberry, an Elon University professor who works with the university's Imagining the Internet Center, said a lack of broadband access is a widespread issue, not isolated to Piedmont Triad or even North Carolina.

"It's expensive to connect. It's expensive to connect people in disparate places," she said.

This digital divide, Stansberry said, is not a new phenomenon.

"It's hard to say when it started, but I would say it's when books were first published and they were incredibly expensive so not everyone had access to knowledge," she said. "I mean this is not a new issue in that sense. However, what I do see right now, what I see is the most pressing concern is just that it's difficult now to fully participate in things like a job search or education opportunities without high-speed Internet access."

Kenneth Sherin works on this issue every day as the Broadband Access and Education Coordinator for the NC Cooperative Extension in Randolph County. The key reasons people don't have access to broadband, he says, are 1) there is not a provider that serves that address, 2) a household simply does not have a use for it, and 3) if there is a provider, the service may be cost-prohibitive to the household.

For people like Sutton and her family, a lack of Internet access has a ripple effect on many aspects of life, hindering their ability to participate in economic, social and educational opportunities.

"It's not just an inconvenience. It really hinders people from being able to get employment, being able to maybe participate in social activities or those kinds of things. It can be very isolating not to have Internet service," Stansberry said. "When you can't participate in the marketplace of ideas, your ideas don't get heard. You can't contribute. And also, you can't benefit from the resources and opportunities that can only be accessed online."

When Stansberry heard about Sutton's story, she wasn't surprised. In fact, that lack of access on rural roads has a name.

"We have what's called the last mile problem," Stansberry explained. "If you think about it as a highway system, you don't take the highway to your house. You get off that really fast highway and then you go down single lane roads to your house and that's what can take a lot of time while you're driving. ... That last mile between your house and wherever the larger cables are that can transport huge amounts of information very quickly. That's really where the issue comes in."

Stansberry also noted that some households are only able to get bare minimum Internet speeds, leaving them lagging behind others who have access to advanced options like fiber optics. This divide, even between those who have access to the Internet, complicates matters further.

"Having the minimum broadband speeds does not necessarily mean you can fully participate in what someone who has a fiber optic which is one of the faster options can do," she said. "So we need to focus not just on the minimum broadband, but on high-speed Internet accessibility at a low enough cost so the barriers around here are lowered to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in our increasingly digital workflow."

With an average lower population density in these rural areas, Stansberry said many companies don't see a return on their investment for extending service to that last mile.

"If you're a company ... what's the return on investment for you if you're spending a whole lot of money to connect three households," she said. "It doesn't make great business sense for most companies to do it and to build out services for just a handful of users so there needs to be some kind of progression or incentive, some kind of reason, instead of seeing Internet access as a business proposition and something that will make money."

"That's why we see government incentives and part of the COVID bill provided quite a bit of funding that many states, North Carolina included, are using to improve broadband access," she added.

Financial incentives are the name of the game in trying to combat broadband access gaps.

"To the best of my knowledge, what's being done are financial incentives from the federal and state governments to Internet service providers to broaden their network to provide better service," Stansberry said. "In our area ... what a lot of the funding has been going toward is more rural areas that literally cannot get high-speed Internet. It's a fight for many people (and) it's a financial issue. ... But for many parts of our state, and this is the bigger problem I see in North Carolina, it's just not possible. You cannot get there, your home is not able to be connected to a high-speed connection and that's the more expensive problem."

While government officials work with Internet providers, federal funding is also available directly to low-income households struggling to afford Internet access. The Federal Communications Commissions' Emergency Broadband Benefit Program provides up to $50 per month to pay for Internet service and equipment for eligible households. A discount of up to $100 is also available for laptop, desktop and tablet purchases. Only one monthly service discount and one device discount are allowed per household.

Bruce Walker, an Alamance County employee whose work focuses on addressing the broadband gap, said county officials have been working with folks at the state level trying to secure this funding.

"The county has been working with the state ( North Carolina Department of Information Technology) on the broadband issue for a while now," he said. "Recently we have been focusing on the state and federal government's push for broadband funding. The NCDIT has promoted their survey which is tied directly to grants and future funding. We and many of our partners are promoting this state survey to get us down to the address level so we know where people have and have not accessed broadband. This is critical for us to identify the areas of need and compete for funding."

The county has been focused on getting survey responses for the past year. In 2019, Alamance County and the Alamance-Burlington School System conducted their own survey, but with limited responses. The data was not significant enough to create change.

"The original survey the county did back in 2019 was an attempt to find out where was their places in the county that did not have access. ... Sadly, we had very little response from the public and schools, but we made a map of the data anyway even though we felt it was not a statistically significant number of responses. It was a good first step," Walker said.

A solution that both Randolph and Alamance counties have deployed involves lending out hotspots at public libraries.

Randolph County's N.C. Cooperative Extension Center received a $5,000 grant around February as part of the BAND-NC Initiative, a statewide program that provides mini-grants to counties implementing digital inclusion plans. Combined with another $5,000 from the Southern Rural Development Center, the center purchased 23 Chromebooks, which students could pick up along with their hotspots at the Randolph County Public Library.

The extension received a second round of funding from BAND-NC, which it plans to use for hiring a temporary part-time Digital Ambassador to spread awareness and equip Randolph County residents with the information they need to receive broadband service, Sherin said.

Alamance County is also working on several grant programs to increase hotspot coverage and work with private Internet service provider companies to expand access.

Many organizations in Randolph County have also created WiFi zones to help serve people during the pandemic. In Alamance, the county turned on public WiFi at many of their buildings to help broaden access.

Both Randolph and Alamance counties participate in their own county-level Digital Inclusion Alliances, which bring together several partner agencies including the municipalities, school systems, nonprofit organizations, the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, county departments and more.

Marcy Green, a member of the Digital Inclusion Alliance in Alamance County, said the organization is working to create a strategic plan to expand access throughout the county. Once the plan concludes sometime this month, Green said the Digital Inclusion Alliance hopes it will help secure funding for future digital infrastructure projects.

"We are still right in the middle of drafting the plan and coming up with strategies for the plan, and we hope to have that completed by the end of August. The next step would be submitting it to the state and setting us up to have a really good plan in place so when federal and state funding becomes available for digital inclusion activities or to expand broadband infrastructure we have a plan," she said.

The planning has been broken up into three areas: availability, access and adoption. The availability committee is looking at where the infrastructure exists or doesn't for residents to be able to access the Internet, while the access committee is looking at the affordability of Internet access in different areas. Finally, the adoption committee is looking at how many people who have access to the Internet has it set up in their home and know how to use it.

"Digital literacy is a huge part of the plan so we're looking at those three areas, availability, access, and adoption," she said. "It's a complicated issue and a lot of things to think about."

In addition to local efforts, North Carolina has drafted a statewide broadband plan, local planning resources and has launched a number of grant programs designed to incentivize the expansion of Internet access.

Completion of the state broadband survey will be critical in assessing the needs of residents, so organizations on all levels are pushing for more responses.

According to Green, only about 1,000 Alamance residents had completed the survey by mid-July.

Until incentives or grant funding can be secured, hundreds of Alamance County residents, especially those in the most rural areas, will be disadvantaged without Internet access. Even despite receiving some funding, thousands of people in Randolph County still don't have access to broadband in their homes, and initiatives seem to be in early planning phases.

There's still a long way to go before many of these people can get access quickly and reliably. In the meantime, students will struggle to get work done, and people like Dawn Sutton will struggle to return to the workforce.

"Digital technology has the potential to help close the economic divide or increase it," Stansberry said. "If we want to close the education divide, the economic divide and the workforce divide then this needs to be something that is widely available to individuals."

(c)2021 Times-News (Burlington, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Special Projects