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Expanding and Improving Reliable Broadband to Remote Workers in Weaverville, NC

The effects of policy on remote workers in WNC and closing the digital divide

By William Gentry

The town of Weaverville in Western North Carolina recently made substantial improvements to the town’s infrastructure surrounding its internet services by implementing free public Wi-Fi in the downtown area. This free public Wi-Fi comes at an important time where remote work has significantly increased since COVID-19 began, creating a new location in Weaverville where remote workers can access reliable internet to complete their work.

In the early hours of the morning in downtown Weaverville, NC, coffee shops, libraries, and other businesses prepare to open to the public for another day. As the town is bustling with people making their way to work and school, citizens like Haley Lynthacum (pictured above) scoping out the local coffee shops, can now access the newly implemented free, public Wi-Fi all through downtown.

 “This is an important addition to our community that can definitely benefit many of our residents who do work remotely,” said Haley Lynthacum, part-time remote worker and online student in Buncombe county. Free public Wi-Fi is a critical step in the right direction of expanding broadband access within Weaverville, however, there are still changes and improvements needed to make high-speed internet more accessible beyond city limits.

Buncombe county resident Haley Lynthacum finds a shady spot on main street in downtown Weaverville, on a sunny spring day to try out the town’s new free public Wi-Fi and to conduct some work finishing up her pharmacy tech certification.

Over the last two years, COVID-19 has increased internet usage in many elements of our society, ranging from grocery pickup to telehealth, to remote work. This rise in internet usage has not only increased remote work but has also significantly impacted some of the digital divide. As businesses and services continue to gravitate toward online-only methods, more and more people are moving to remote styles of work, while some residents are being forced to become more “digital-savvy” in order to thrive in a society where high-speed internet is now considered a necessity. Remote workers living in rural areas commonly experience extreme difficulty gaining access to these high-speed internet connections.

Maggie Woods, Policy and Program Manager at the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI), weighed in on COVID-19’s impact on the digital divide saying, “The biggest thing COVID-19 did was it highlighted why the digital divide matters while improving some of the indicators on digital inclusion and digital equity.” 

As digital equity and inclusion gain more attention, it sheds light on the significance of the digital divide. To stay competitive, businesses need online platforms, while the digital inclusion amongst certain groups must increase in order for them to understand these online platforms and to keep up with the rest of society that’s moving toward online-only services. Whether it’s for school, work, or the many other aspects of our lives that are becoming online dominant.

Just a few miles away from downtown, rural areas that struggle gaining high-speed broadband access occupy a large portion of the town of Weaverville. Including this picture taken of a couple homes just down the road from rural Weaverville resident, Mary Davis.

With the increase in employers moving to remote styles of work, it can have an effect on those who live in rural areas where high-speed internet is not as available compared in urban areas. Remote workers specifically need access to a strong, reliable internet connection in order to satisfy their job’s needs to the best of their ability. 

Weaverville, NC resident Mary Davis, who has worked remotely for the past seven years with her company, says “A strong internet connection is crucial for my everyday life in order to successfully complete my job’s tasks.” 

Recording meetings, customer interviews, and downloading and uploading various files, are just a few day-to-day tasks of Davis’ job, which all require high-speed connections.

Ookla speedtests
Speed test results of Mary Davis’s home in rural Weaverville, NC. High Wi-Fi results vs low cellular results demonstrates the importance of having a high-broadband connection in Davis’ area to properly conduct her work remotely from home.

“Speed test is the first metric that comes to mind for everybody,” said Marc Czarnecki, a digital navigator with the WNC Broadband project. 

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) current standards for defining high-speed broadband access are internet connections of at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. After running multiple speed tests at Davis’ home checking the Wi-Fi and cellular data connections in her area, as expected the results for the cellular data tests were extremely low compared to her high Wi-Fi speeds. With cellular speeds reaching as low as 4.14/1.24 Mbps and Wi-Fi speeds up to 90/10 Mbps. This shows the importance for remote workers to have high-speed connections when living in rural areas, as conducting remote work can be nearly impossible in these areas when only running on cellular data. This is where Wi-Fi hotspots can come in handy, or being fortunate enough to have high-speed broadband installed. Although Davis has the benefit of access to high-speed broadband at her home in rural Weaverville, she doesn’t take it for granted and understands the importance of having reliable internet, especially in rural areas.

As access to reliable high-speed internet continues to become more of an essential piece of infrastructure within our society, its important proper policies and regulations are updated and implemented making high-speed broadband obtainable for people in all areas. According to the census data, nearly 22% of households in Western North Carolina do not have access to broadband connections, possibly due to the FCC’s mapping data. Changes are needed when it comes to the FCC’s policy and regulations. For example, accurate mapping data has been an ongoing issue for the FCC. The FCC’s maps are based on Form 477, where broadband servers and providers report their data on locations they offer internet service with speeds over 200 Kbps in at least one direction. This data is based on a census block, “The server finds the speeds of one home and then claims that speed for every home in the area,” Czarnecki said. This could be the reason for such inaccurate mapping data by the FCC.

How these maps are created based on such inaccurate data is harmful to residents in rural areas who don’t receive fair access to broadband, with a specific impact on remote work limiting the areas people can conduct their work. The current $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grant program will be used to focus on improving the FCC’s mapping data. Rural communities will benefit most from improvements made to the FCC’s maps by having more accurate data reported from service providers on these areas whose broadband speeds were not properly surveyed. 

“It’s extremely important to make sure they are collecting the most accurate data possible for these maps to benefit these residents and their internet,” said Allison Davis, a home health physical therapy assistant who is constantly working on the road. “I go to patients’ houses all the time who have terrible internet service, with many of them not even fully aware of what kind of internet service they have,” Davis added.

While mapping data has been an ongoing issue in getting reliable broadband to rural areas, there are other plans and grants currently put into place that will benefit remote workers in these areas. As of late January, the Growing Rural Economics with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants are open for qualified service providers to apply for up to $350 million in grants to allow more people access to high-speed internet and to expand broadband infrastructure throughout North Carolina. These grants are a part of Governor Cooper’s plan to provide 95% of North Carolina households with broadband access of 100/20 Mbps, improving the current FCC standards for broadband. With remote work expanding to all areas, these GREAT grants can help improve and increase the locations remote workers can conduct their work. Whether it’s implementing high-speed broadband within their rural homes or gaining stronger access while working on the road.

Remote work is showing no signs of slowing down and is having a positive effect on rural residents. “Allowing people to not have to be in cities to access really high paying jobs is creating a better standard of living for rural places and offering people more flexibility to live where they want to live, but still access high paying jobs,” said Woods, who also conducts most of her work remotely. 

Remote work is creating a larger job market for people who live outside of the cities where high-speed internet is commonly inaccessible, which is the reason why it is becoming increasingly important to provide these rural areas and residences with equal opportunities for implementing high-speed broadband. It is crucial for remote workers, specifically in rural areas, to have reliable internet connections. 

According to Woods, the state of North Carolina already has 15 counties and counting with funded and supported digital inclusion plans, which is about the same number of total counties with plans in the rest of the 49 states. With 15 counties already being funded with plans, the state currently has another 28 counties and counting in the process of developing digital inclusion plans as well.

North Carolina has already made large strides toward this goal of providing accessible broadband to all areas, with hopes of continuing to spread these improvements throughout the rest of the United States.

With strategic plans implemented, the digital divide can be significantly improved over time.