Earl McKee’s grandfather and his neighbors chopped down cedar trees to create the first utility poles for Person County. Those poles eventually fed the electric wires that illuminated his dairy farm. McKee, an Orange County Commissioner, is facing a different utility crisis almost a century later: getting internet access—good internet access—to the rural parts of Orange County.
It’s something McKee struggles with.
“I’ve tried a few of the committee meetings at home, but I do almost all of my virtual meetings in Hillsborough at the Whitted Center,” McKee says. “Because if I’m trying to attend a virtual meeting at home, it’s very problematic as to whether I’m actually going to be able to participate. I mean, I might be there, but you might not be able to hear me.”
McKee lives in a part of the county that isn’t on broadband—a term used to describe internet service of a certain speed. Close to 5,000 county residences didn’t have broadband in 2018, and its availability varies widely by census tract. FCC data show that 100 percent of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residences are potentially able to meet the 25/3 threshold, meaning users can download at a speed of 25 or more megabits per second, or upload content at three megabits per second. By comparison, more than 95 percent of the state’s households have broadband access available.
As you move north into the county, the number of residences that meet that threshold plummets as low as 41 percent and the speed is slower.
“A family of four typically would need greater than the 25/3 to stream,” Jeff Sural, the director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, told the INDY. “If you have four users in the house and one is streaming a video, several are on emails, one may be gaming, you’re going to need greater than the minimum threshold.”
Some may still consider high-speed internet a luxury, but the COVID-19 pandemic has proved that it’s a necessity. Some students can’t access classes or their homework. Adults could find it nearly impossible to work. Telehealth isn’t always an option, prompting many patients to brave doctor’s offices. Libraries are normally a solution to poor internet access in the home, but many have closed.
Local school systems created their own remedies. Orange County Schools Superintendent Monique Felder says the school system had to provide around 1,400 students and 200 teachers and staff with hotspots to keep up with their school days; the numbers are similar at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, according to a representative. Hotspots are expensive solutions, and may work only in the short-term: Alamance County families told Elon News Network that their hotspots still didn’t provide enough bandwidth for the whole household.
McKee petitioned the Board of Commissioners in November to create the Orange County Broadband Task Force to tackle the issue. The group includes McKee, Sural, Commissioner Sally Greene, representatives from the two school systems and Durham Tech, and others in the community. At the first meeting March 4, they asked the question: How does broadband expand to the rural parts of Orange County?
This isn’t Orange County’s first time tackling broadband access. Greene became aware of the issue while serving on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2011.
“Chapel Hill on its own was hoping to be able to provide broadband service under the law as it had been, before it was changed,” she says.
That same year, the General Assembly and its brand-new Republican majority passed Session Law 2011-84, or the “Level Playing Field” bill. The bill prohibits municipalities from creating internet cooperatives, like the ones that exist for electricity or water. Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum), CenturyLink, and other communications companies backed the bill. Legislators sold it as a means to preserve competition.
“Let’s be clear about whose bill this is,” Bill Faison, a former Orange County representative, told WRAL at the time. “This is Time Warner’s bill. You need to know who you’re doing this for.”
The 2011 bill is reminiscent of private efforts in the 20th century to dissuade the legislature from creating public electric cooperatives. As with electric companies, the state tried to incentivize communications companies to create rural broadband service.
These incentives rarely apply to counties like Orange, with a mix of rural and urban areas. The state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program applies only to counties with the most pressing needs. Orange County has one of the highest median household incomes and lowest unemployment rates statewide, despite its varying census tract data.
The Level Playing Field Bill has forced Orange County officials to look for their own incentives over the last decade, including partnerships with private companies. In September 2018, Orange County government began a three-year partnership with the Waxhaw internet company Open Broadband with the hope of taking 2,700 residences online. Though the contract still has a few months, it’s clear that the goal was never realized.
Jim Northrup, the county’s chief information officer, told the broadband task force that 10 percent of those residences—fewer than 300 homes—would have wireless internet by the contract’s expiration in October. The company was not prepared for the county’s lack of “vertical assets”—or tall things to put equipment on. Without towers, skyscrapers, or billboards, there’s no way to make fixed wireless work. Other solutions, like fiber, can be expensive to build.
Internet service providers don’t fall under the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which regulates the quality of a service and determines local need for it. Without that regulation, the wealth in Chapel Hill and Carrboro can’t make the rural parts of the county more attractive to private companies—if companies can’t turn a big enough profit, then they won’t improve service.
Even if municipalities could form cooperatives, they may run into their own issues. Sural says the municipal co-op model has worked well for some counties, but not others.
“A lot of municipalities do not have the resources to build a network, a lot of them don’t have the know-how,” Sural says. He says Wilson, “the poster child for muni broadband” in the state, had an electric cooperative in place. City officials knew how to run a public utility, city employees knew how to hang the wires, and the city already owned the poles.
In 1933, the state began laying the groundwork to electrify its farms with a government program. In April 1935, North Carolina Rural Electrification officially began. The federal program was created under the New Deal in May; President Roosevelt was communicating with the state during the program’s inception.
Governor Roy Cooper calls rural broadband access a priority; so do House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. Nationally, the first two stimulus packages had money that could be used for broadband and more could be included in the third package currently moving through Congress.
There’s a possibility this momentum could all change as COVID-19 fades away, and we slowly return to our normal, distracted lives. None of the people to whom the INDY spoke for this story think that’s likely: even after the pandemic, people will want to work, or shop, from home. Students will still need the internet for homework.
“I’ve heard the tax issue, and the cost issue,” McKee says. “‘Can we afford to do this?’ My response is ‘Can we afford not to do it?’”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.