Why is high-speed internet still poor in Chatham County?

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Paul Worth, a realtor who lives south of Pittsboro, asks “Why is high-speed internet still poor in Chatham County?” He said he spends $60 a month for Windstream, which has promised speed upgrades for eight years but has failed to deliver.

To answer Worth’s question, I decided to break it down into relevant sections to explore the issue of broadband internet access in Chatham. I also created a map of Chatham’s broadband availability using the FCC’s broadband development data from June 2017, which can be viewed below:

What constitutes high-speed? What is “broadband”? How fast should my download and upload speeds be? 

The FCC defines “broadband” as any internet connection that achieves 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The recommended download speed is much higher than the upload speed because the majority of internet tasks (loading web pages, streaming video, etc.) involve downloading. Certain tasks like Skype, FaceTime calls or sending large files via email require greater upload speeds.

Simple web tasks such as Google searches and email only require download speeds of about 1-5 Mbps, whereas more intensive tasks like streaming high definition video, playing online games and downloading very large files can require anywhere from 15 to more than 200 Mbps per task.

What is the problem with internet in Chatham County? How many choices do Chathamites have?

A survey conducted by the county in 2017 asked residents to rate their satisfaction with their internet in the county. Eighty-eight percent of residents who responded to the survey said they were unserved or unsatisfied with their current internet service.

Glenn Knox of the North Carolina Broadband Office told county government employees and representatives from area ISPs in a meeting last year that he has personally tested the connection speed in several Chatham County homes and found an average speed of 1 to 1.5 Mbps or less. Knox also said he tested one neighborhood which lost all of its internet service during heavy rain.

An FAQ page on the county’s website says Chatham has “two cable providers, two DSL providers and a couple of broadband wireless providers.”

The FCC data lists 20 internet service providers in the county, with speeds ranging from 2 Mbps satellite connections to 1 Gbps fiber from AT&T. According to data from the FCC, Hughes Network Systems provides the most coverage in the county, offering 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. VSAT Systems LLC was the second largest, offering non-broadband speeds of 2 Mbps down and 1.3 Mbps up.

The FCC estimates that 73.4 percent of residents in Chatham County have access to broadband speeds. According to the same data, neighboring Orange County has 92.5 percent coverage. However, this data may be inaccurate because the FCC report relies on ISPs self-reporting their coverage and speeds, which may exclude a large number of providers who choose not to report.

Patrick Woodie, president of the N.C. Rural Center, also said that the FCC data counts an entire area as being served if only one house in that area is covered. The Rural Center did not respond to a request for more accurate data, but in the interview, Woodie encouraged rural residents to self-report their internet speeds to the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office by taking a speed test linked to on their website.

What impediments are there for developing broadband in rural areas? 

In 2011, North Carolina passed House Bill 129 preventing towns and municipalities from providing their own internet service. At the time of the bill’s passage four N.C. municipalities had government-provided internet services. Chatham’s representative at the time, Joe Hackney, voted against the bill.

Woodie said the bill created some confusion about what municipalities could and could not do in regards to funding broadband. Under current law, towns and municipalities are allowed to fund or incentivize private sector internet providers however they wish, so long as they don’t provide internet service themselves.

Last year, the state legislature considered a bill that was supposed to clarify the rules for municipalities and define broadband as part of infrastructure, freeing up funds that could be used to pay for broadband improvements. Chatham County Rep. Robert Reives voted in favor of the bill. The bill passed the House but died in Senate committee.

Woodie said the primary problem with providing internet to rural areas is that there aren’t enough subscribers per square mile to justify a larger internet service provider such as AT&T, Verizon or Comcast investing in the necessary startup infrastructure for the area, especially when there are larger, more profitable areas nearby. The geography and terrain of these areas can also present issues for ISPs because they can cause fixed wireless line of sight interference and make the laying of fiber optic cable more difficult.

Even when changes do come to rural areas, residents can be slow to see the importance or may not be able to afford the updates, he said.

Woodie also said leaders were sometimes overly optimistic about the prospect of technological progress, which can lead them to become apathetic.

“A lot of people will say ‘You don’t need to worry about this, the advance in technology will solve the problem and eventually it will be everywhere.’ We don’t buy that argument,” he said. “What we see in a lot of the research and a lot of the people who have looked really seriously at 5G technology, definitely it’s a new technology and it has some benefits, but it’s likely that rural communities will be the last to see the benefits of that.”

What will it take to bring high-speed internet to the unserved areas in Chatham? What plans are already in place at the county and state level to do that? 

County leaders are heavily invested in expanding broadband access in Chatham. In a presentation of Chatham’s Capital Improvement Plan for 2020 through 2026, Interim County Manager Dan LaMontagne asked the county’s leaders to fund improvements in broadband and technology for the coming years. LaMontagne said the county government is working with the school district on a proposal to lease fiber to serve the schools. The proposal says service would be scheduled to start on July 1, 2019 and may be used to enhance the broadband service for county residents.

Additionally, Open Broadband, an internet service provider that serves other rural areas in North Carolina, said it is “conducting feasibility studies and researching market needs” for Chatham County and are in discussion with the various towns in the county. The company says it provides residential and business customers with gigabit fiber and fixed wireless service for as low as $39 a month.

“There’s probably no words that have been more often spoken than ‘rural broadband’ in the General Assembly in the last session,” Woodie said.

State legislators just approved a budget that contains $10 million in grant money to bring more internet service providers to rural areas. The GREAT program, short for Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, would provide funds for internet service providers who want to expand in rural areas.

To receive the grant funds an internet service provider would have to provide a background with its experience and proposed project details, proof that the area is unserved and evidence of support from the community. An area is considered to be unserved if it’s presently without access to broadband service offered by a wireline or fixed wireless provider.  The applicant would then be graded on a point system based on the number of unserved households and businesses, the estimated cost per household and the minimum download and upload speeds. The grants are capped at $2 million per applicant and the applicant must agree to match between 35 and 55 percent of the awarded funds based on the number of points they were given. Providers must offer the service for at least five years, or be subject to loss of the awarded funds.

North Carolina General Assembly Speaker Tim Moore’s office praised the program in a news release.

“Maximizing broadband capability in every region of North Carolina is essential to maintain our state’s rapid economic growth,” House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) said in the press release.

“Broadband is as essential for economic growth as roads, water and sewer, and low-cost electricity. The GREAT program is an innovative step to help connect North Carolina communities, create jobs, and offer new opportunities in unserved parts of the state.”

Woodie said between 80 and 90 people representing 40-50 different internet service providers interested in vying for the funding at the kickoff meeting hosted at the Rural Center last Thursday.

In August, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper criticized members of the General Assembly for only funding half of his proposed $20 million for broadband expansion and cybersecurity in his opening remarks at the 18th North Carolina Digital Summit in Raleigh. Cooper said broadband is critical to close the “homework gap” — the inability or difficulty for some students to complete online assignments for school because of a lack of high-speed internet.

Why is high-speed internet so important? If I have broadband, why should I care?

Having faster internet isn’t just helpful when you are trying to stream the latest season of Game of Thrones.

Multiple studies have found that higher internet speeds increase economic growth in the surrounding communities including improvements in household income, productivity and work flexibility. A 2013 study conducted by Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and the Chalmers University of Technology also found that increases in internet speed also improved access to healthcare and made energy use more efficient. A study conducted by Hudson Institute, a D.C. based conservative think tank, found that rural broadband companies contributed $24.1 billion to the economies of the states in which they operated in 2015 and supported 69,595 jobs.

In an interview, Patrick Woodie, President of the N.C. Rural Center, also stressed the importance of broadband, calling it the center’s number one priority.

“We can’t deliver healthcare to our rural citizens without the availability of broadband. We can’t build our workforce development system and really take care of the educational needs of children or adults throughout our educational systems, without broadband. We can’t start, grow and build a small business without broadband,” Woodie said. “It’s just foundational to really the economic future of our communities.”

What other questions do you have about broadband in Chatham County?  Let us know so we can continue to investigate this issue.

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