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One challenge in expanding broadband in NC? Knowing who doesn’t actually have it

North Carolina wants to know how fast your internet connection is

In an effort to get a more detailed view of North Carolina's access to broadband, the state wants residents to report how fast their internet connections are. You can test your speeds through the state's broadband office's website.
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In an effort to get a more detailed view of North Carolina's access to broadband, the state wants residents to report how fast their internet connections are. You can test your speeds through the state's broadband office's website.

As North Carolina attempts to expand broadband internet to large swaths of the state that are unable to access it, the state government faces one big obstacle: knowing exactly who doesn’t have access to high-speed internet.

In part, that’s because of the way the Federal Communications Commission collects data on the matter, which overstates how many households and businesses are able to access fast, affordable and reliable internet connections across the country.

For example, according to the FCC, around 94% of North Carolina households have access to broadband; state officials and advocates know, both anecdotally and empirically, that number is incorrect.

The FCC’s number is out of line because of how it defines access. The FCC relies on internet service providers (ISPs) to self report which census blocks are served by broadband. However, if just one home in a census block is served, then the entire census block is counted as served. Census blocks can have hundreds or thousands of people in them. In size, they can range from a single square block in a city to hundreds of square miles in rural areas.

That over-counting matters, as both state and federal funding programs rely on those definitions to allocate money, with most areas unable to access money if they aren’t defined as “unserved.”

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Fixed wireless internet service uses cell towers, like this one shown in Raleigh in 2016, to send broadband to antennas at homes and businesses. Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

“If the map shows your neighborhood has service, even if it doesn’t, it won’t be eligible for money to build or extend service to your area,” Jeff Sural, director of the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, said in an email. “Thus, if you don’t have broadband now, but the map says you do, you won’t likely get it in the future.”

Despite that limitation, North Carolina’s broadband office has received attention from national organizations and is making small progress through its rural broadband grant program, Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT). It’s one of just a few state-run programs that set money aside each year for broadband deployment to places that are too unprofitable for ISPs to invest in.

In May, the GREAT program gave out its first 21 awards, worth nearly $10 million, to expand access to broadband in rural parts of the state.

Those awards will provide internet access to nearly 9,800 homes and nearly 600 businesses across 19 rural counties, Sural said.

The money went to a variety of small businesses, telephone cooperatives and an electric membership cooperative. The program is “tech agnostic,” meaning not every project will be strictly fiber in the ground. A few, Sural said, are fixed wireless projects, where service signals are sent between cell towers and antennas fixed to homes or businesses.

The state also recently removed regulatory barriers that prevented electric cooperatives from receiving funds to expand broadband service, a move many think will boost access. Sural said electric cooperatives often have more of an ability to work in rural parts of the state than some of the bigger ISPs because they already provide utilities there.

In the meantime, the data is still a problem for where grant money should flow. Just this month, the FCC said it will be tightening how ISPs report where they provide broadband to create more accurate maps, the tech website Ars Technica reported.

To overcome a lack of clear coverage data, Sural said North Carolina is doing several things to create a more accurate picture of the state’s broadband access, including aggregating data from other sources — like asking residents to self report if they have broadband at their address — and overlaying it on the FCC data.

The broadband office also said it is working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to locate additional data sources and means of analysis to create a more accurate map.

“I don’t think anyone has a true number,” said Patrick Woodie, president of the NC Rural Center. “The state broadband office has done a tremendous job of getting more accurate numbers ... but in terms of comprehensive statewide data we are not where we want to be.”

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Contractors doing work installing fiber optic cable lines for Google Fiber in 2015. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

25 Mbps vs 10 Mbps

Despite creating more data and connections, not everyone is satisfied with the level of support given to efforts like the GREAT program, in light of the divide created between communities with fast internet access and those without.

Estelle “Bunny” Sanders, a broadband advocate and former mayor of the small Washington County town of Roper, said $10 million simply wasn’t enough money to make a dent and added the state absolutely needs to conduct an independent study of what areas don’t have broadband access.

She is also concerned that some connections that are being made are still too slow to even count as broadband.

Broadband is both an economic development and quality of life issue for rural North Carolina. Without broadband, rural towns and counties can find it harder to attract businesses and residents can struggle to get along in a modern economy that requires internet to access things like health care, education and economic opportunity.

“You are not going to be able to get major companies to come to this area” without it, Sanders said. She added that residents will leave for communities with more amenities and potential transplants won’t even consider towns without high-speed connections.

If the issue isn’t addressed, Sanders argued, the gap between the rural parts of the state without broadband and the urban parts of the state with it will continue to widen.

Sanders’ point about speeds revolves around the state’s definition of what counts as broadband. North Carolina says download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 Mbps count as broadband. The FCC puts the definition of broadband at 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, a speed that is considered sufficient for a family to stream video and have multiple devices connected at one time.

That difference does matter, as potential ISPs can be eligible for state money while only providing 10 Mbps. Woodie said there is a meaningful difference between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps, and his organization has urged the state to raise its definition.

By way of comparison, Raleigh had an average download speed of 137.7 Mbps in 2018.

For its part, the broadband office said it is trying to account for speed in its own incentives to ISPs. And Sural noted that, of the 21 grants provided through the GREAT program, only two provided speeds lower than 25 Mbps.

That’s because during the application process, the broadband office gave preference to ISPs that promised to provide at least 25 Mbps connections for residents. “If a provider said they could give only 10 (Mbps), then their scores were reduced,” Sural said.

Not just a Tier 1 problem

Beyond pushing the definition of broadband up from 10 Mbps to 25 Mbps, Woodie said the program needs to be expanded to more counties than just Tier 1 counties. The broadband office agrees with that and Sural said it is actively trying to add Tier 2 counties to consideration.

The GREAT program is currently influenced by the N.C. Commerce Department’s tier rankings, in which poorer and more rural counties are given preference in economic development programs. Tier 1 counties are considered more economically disadvantaged, while Tier 3 counties, which includes most of the Triangle, are large and fast growing.

But Sural noted that there are still parts of eastern Chatham County, just on the edges of the Triangle’s tremendous growth, that still don’t have reliable internet access. And in northern Orange County, one of the most prosperous counties in the state, many residents still struggle to get fast and reliable connections, The News & Observer previously reported.

Another lingering problem is the fact that the GREAT program is dependent upon whatever amount of money it is given in the state’s yearly budget.

At the moment, with negotiations still going on between the General Assembly and the governor’s office, it doesn’t have another round of funding to award its next round of grants.

The governor’s office wants $30 million for the program, while the state legislature only outlined $15 million for it, Sural said.

Woodie, from the Rural Center, hopes the program remains a priority, as he sees it doing good work so far.

“I think we are actually chipping away at the gap,” Woodie said. “And I think if we stay the course with the GREAT program … we are making progress on that front.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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