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How communities across North Carolina are trying to bridge 'the homework gap'

When Donnie Shumate moved to Hyde County several years ago, his wife had to quit her work-from-home job with Amazon because the internet speed was too slow for telecommuting.

Shumate is the county's information technology manager, and he hasn't been able to persuade internet providers to serve Hyde, which is one of the state's most rural counties.

"It's really difficult to get anybody interested in coming out, because it's not densely populated," he said.

Data on broadband availability from the Federal Communications Commission shows that only 14.6 percent of Hyde residents have access to internet speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second. That's the standard benchmark the FCC uses to determine whether an area has adequate speeds, and that minimum speed is still much slower than the gigabit fiber networks currently rolling out in urban areas.

Hyde has the worst internet access in the state, but FCC data shows that 50 percent of residents or less have 25-Megabit access in eight counties, and the total is less than 70 percent in 20 counties.

Statewide, the FCC estimates that 93.7 percent of North Carolinians can access the minimum speed — slightly higher than neighboring states — but experts say that number is inflated because the FCC uses census tracts in its calculation. If even a small part of the census tract has adequate broadband access, the entire census tract is counted. To get more accurate data, North Carolina's Broadband Infrastructure Office has been asking residents to submit their own internet speed data.

Pressure is mounting for state leaders to intervene. Gov. Roy Cooper announced this month that his proposed budget will address the issue, with "$20 million to connect households and underserved businesses to the internet and work on closing the Homework Gap for students who can't access the internet," according to Cooper spokesman Jamal Little.

The N.C. League of Municipalities is backing a House bill that stalled in the Senate and would allow local governments to build broadband infrastructure and lease it to private internet providers.

The legislation doesn't include funding for any infrastructure grants to internet providers, which Rep. John Szoka, a Cumberland County Republican and sponsor of House Bill 68, the "BRIGHT Futures Act," said he wouldn't support. "I'm not really a proponent of government spending a lot of money and hoping someone will come," he said, but he noted that his bill likely wouldn't be the permanent solution. "I think this is the best first step we have. It definitely would work better in some municipalities and some counties than in others."

Eric Cramer, CEO of Wilkes Communications, says both the leasing flexibility in Szoka's bill and state grant funding are needed to help private companies fill the service gaps.

Cramer's company has been one of North Carolina's rural broadband success stories.

Created decades ago as a telephone cooperative, Wilkes Communications used federal stimulus money to help expand high-speed broadband to rural, mountainous corners of Wilkes County.

"It's just a game changer," Cramer said. "You can have a $2 million view of the mountains and have the same access as you'd have in New York , D.C. and San Francisco."

The FCC data shows 99 percent access to adequate broadband speeds in Wilkes, a slightly higher percentage than Durham County. The company now has a statewide broadband initiative called RiverStreet Networks, using phone coops to expand fiber networks in rural communities like Saluda, Barnardsville and Ellerbe.

"We're hoping that the state can establish a broadband infrastructure fund," Cramer said, arguing that it could stimulate public-private partnerships for "the best way to solve the rural broadband problem in North Carolina."

The cost of new fiber network infrastructure could be split between state government, local governments and private companies. Cramer suggests $10 million to $35 million in the fund initially for pilot projects; the funding model could be similar to the state's 911 network — a small surcharge on everyone's internet bill.

"There's a groundswell of people that are saying we're being left behind," he said. "It takes three years (of planning and construction) before we can light up the first customer. This needs to start now."

Cramer's company already has a partnership with Stokes County, with county government chipping in a portion of the costs to expand fiber to underserved sections of Stokes. He's also eyeing Hyde County after a merger with a phone company in that area of the state. "If that had grant funding, we could definitely make it work," he said.

"We'd love for that to be a pilot project."

Shumate, the Hyde County IT manager, said residents there might be willing to help build the infrastructure. "I don't think anybody's going to come out on their own dime" because it's difficult to break even in serving a sparsely populated area, he said. "If it was financially responsible for us to do, there's no doubt in my mind that the citizens would get behind it."

Another, less costly, technology is emerging as a solution for broadband woes in rural areas. Last year, a Lenoir County start-up company called Eastern Carolina Broadband mounted a wireless broadband transmitter atop a farmer's grain elevator in the Deep Run community — an area of the county plagued by slow internet speeds.

Customers within a five-mile radius can get a high-speed connection through a receiver mounted on their home or business, "about the size of your average hummingbird feeder," said Andrew Odom, a spokesman for the company based in nearby Pink Hill. "There's nothing that's too rural or too remote" for the service, he said, as long as trees and topography don't block the signal.

The company recently struck a deal with Duplin County to place transmitters atop 13 water towers, paying the county $250 per tank per year. "We are constantly in talks with other counties," Odom added.

Jeff Sural, director of North Carolina's Broadband Infrastructure Office, said the wireless option works best in flat, open areas of the state but the relatively new technology "is a game changer for rural areas."

Demand for high-speed internet is growing. Farming operations increasingly need a strong connection to take advantage of cutting-edge agricultural technology. And while nearly every school in the state has a strong broadband connection, students who don't have it at home are left behind when homework requires a connected iPad.

"It is the new electricity — it is as basic as indoor plumbing," said William Pitt, a city councilman in the Beaufort County city of Washington who spearheaded a downtown wi-fi network there. The downtown initiative is helping improve business and offers an option for residents who don't have internet at home.

While local governments are eager to forge public-private partnerships to expand internet access, there's not much appetite to operate a government internet service. While the city of Wilson set up its own broadband service, state law later banned local governments from setting up similar networks — out of concerns about competition with private providers.

"We don't want to be the billing entity," said Matt Zapp, town manager of Benson in Johnston County, which is looking for private companies to partner with the town's electrical infrastructure to improve service around the town's outskirts. "We see it as the number one driver in economic development."

The city of Laurinburg in Scotland County has 100 miles of fiber installed, serving major industries, schools and hospitals. But while — like Wilson — it has the legal authority to offer small business and residential service, its leaders haven't wanted to take that step. City Manager Charles Nichols said Laurinburg is looking for private internet providers that want to use the fiber network, but so far none have emerged.

Nichols said the network has helped attract companies and added jobs. "We've used it as an additional tool in our economic development director's toolbox," he said. "To be a rural city or county in North Carolina and have 100 miles of fiber infrastructure is pretty impressive."

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