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Ruling out the Digital Divide

The Blight of Unreliable Internet in WNC

The Blight of Unreliable Internet in Western North Carolina

By Xavier Hooper and Diego Garcia

Student accessing high-speed internet in local McDonalds. Download speeds at his home are about six megabits per second, while the download speeds at McDonalds are upwards of 200 megabits per second.

Thirty minutes from the city, perched atop a mountain top in the billowing hills of Transylvania County lies the home of Tina and Kurt Miller. 

“It’s kind of like a dial-up connection. On a good day,” Kurt Miller said, emitting a little chuckle. 

Tina and Kurt Miller have been dealing with the issue of unreliable internet since they moved to North Carolina and it affects their lives on a daily basis. Their exact area is void of cell towers and reliable internet service alike. 

From canceled video appointments to spotty phone calls, the Millers’ lives are consistently affected by the sheer placement of their home.

 In a survey conducted by Land of Sky under their West NGN Initiative, it was found that in Transylvania County, nearly 53% of survey respondents said their internet service did not sufficiently meet their needs, and 7.3% or 2,500 survey respondents don’t have internet access at all. 

Tina and Kurt’s story is like many of those who share the same issue of having unreliable internet service.

 According to data from the Appalachian Regional Commission, roughly 22% of North Carolina’s mountain households lack an internet connection at home. Residents in these underserved areas are plagued by the issue and constantly struggle to manage and maintain in a digital age with the hardships brought upon by this lack of internet.

 Since the start of the pandemic, the issue has only been exacerbated as schools all over the country moved to online instruction, doctor appointments moved to video conferencing services and social security offices transitioned to online. As society’s demand for digital services continues to rise, so does the digital divide.

The digital divide is the gap between those who have access to reliable communication technology and those who don’t. 

Much of the problem stems from households in rural areas being sparse and spaced many miles from one another. Laying fiber-optic cable, which transmits the fastest internet speeds, would be too expensive for residents to afford. 

Yvette Brooks, executive director of a non-profit organization, Through The Trees, said that certain residents she spoke to were quoted up to a hundred thousand dollars from ISP’s for the installation of these cable lines.

 In 2017, the Department of Transportation put the average cost of laying fiber at $27,000 per mile. 

According to surveys gathered from the NC Broadband Survey in Transylvania County, the median download and upload speed is 10 megabits per second for download and 2 megabits per second for upload, which is capable of running basic web applications, albeit insufficient for services like video calling and streaming videos. 

This statistic accounts for 3.7 percent of the county, which is only a small fraction of the population, however, according to Brooks, it is representative of a lot of the rest of the county. 

Brooks’ organization, Through the Trees, actively seeks out the expansion of high-speed internet to residents in the area. Through donations and grant funds, they have been able to help various residents get internet access while also hosting a space where people can rent devices and connect to reliable internet. 

One of the most important things that residents can do in hopes of getting better internet services in their area is by taking the NC Broadband Survey. The more survey responses put on display the lack of high-speed internet in these rural areas, the higher the chances are of getting federal and state funding sources to supplement those regions with broadband.  

According to Sara Nichols, coordinator of the West NGN initiative from Land of Sky, the data from survey responses does not support how extensive the issue is. 

“One of the challenges with data gathering about broadband is that you’re often pushing out a survey online to people who don’t have internet,” said Nichols. 

Nichols goes on to say that she suspects that probably about 15 to 20% of the region’s population is not represented in the survey. The projects for areas lacking survey responses will not become eligible for funding until represented with proper data.

If projects like Land of Sky and Through the Trees are able to generate more funding for their projects, they can further help close the funding gap so that providers can do the work of hooking residents up with high-speed internet. 

According to data compiled from Through the Trees, many folks can afford the monthly utility payment for high-speed internet services, but they can’t afford the startup or installation cost.

 Through donations and other funding, Through the Trees has been able to subsidize the startup cost for many residents in the county, thus kickstarting these families within a threshold of affordability, while Land of Sky has implemented millions of dollars to the cause, through extensive data gathering, subsidizing costs and much more. Links to these organizations will be listed below.