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Chowan County needs broadband

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Chowan Herald

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Support our legislators, local electric co-ops and Gov. Roy Cooper's efforts to expand broadband coverage to the rural parts of North Carolina.

Among other initiatives, a law is being drafted that would allow local electric co-ops to utilize their infrastructure to expand broadband to underserved areas that the big telecom companies won't touch.

Though it is the right thing to do, tackling big telecom and those entrenched political interests in Raleigh is not going to be an easy row to hoe. Our dynamic duo of legislators – State Sen. Bob Steinburg and Representative Ed Goodwin – should be praised for speaking candidly about the challenges that lay ahead and seeking to change laws that unfairly restrict broadband access.

“It's not financially feasible for the big telecoms to run cable underground and cover every inch of eastern North Carolina -- they're not going to do it,” Goodwin said. “What they will say is, 'Don't you have broadband in the town of Edenton?' -- So they can say that 27932 zip code is served. They have no interest in coming out in the county and doing anything for us.”

Steinburg's story about students traveling from the county to Edenton to be able connect to the internet so as to be able to do their homework is mind-blowing.

Small towns and regions without reliable internet coverage will fall more and more behind in terms of economic development because as technology advances, the world will be divided between those with the skills and access to take advantage of emerging opportunities, and those who are stuck in the slow lane watching that “spinning wheel of death” on their monitors while waiting to send a simple email.

The importance of expanding internet access is the same as it was generations ago when electricity was extended beyond the cities to the farms and fields near and far.  

Let's say it like it is – urban America holds the rural nation in contempt. That bigotry is seen every day as jobs and services are moved from Main Street to corporate America's urban centers. Powers-that-be make us beg for what should be considered common infrastructure such as roads, water system upgrades and access to health care. Though we desperately need Interstate 87 between Raleigh and Norfolk, Va., tell that to urbanites clamoring for yet another beltway around the state capital.

It's not fair. It's not right, but that's where we are when 20 densely populated counties try to call the shots for what they consider as flyover country for the state's other 80 counties. But if we unite as a region, we have a chance to have our voices heard in the corridors of power.  

Though we watch Governor Cooper's actions with eye-rolling wonder some days, we will concede that this Nash County born and raised leader cares about the rural corners of our state. Cooper has issued an executive order to increase internet access across the state through a new Governor’s Task Force on Connecting North Carolina.

The order directs state government leaders to identify and remove barriers to affordable, high-speed internet access, eliminate the homework gap that results from students not having internet access, and facilitate private-sector deployment of last-mile infrastructure.

Cooper’s budget includes $35 million for efforts to expand access to broadband internet service. 

“In today’s schools and workplaces, high-speed internet is not optional. Too many North Carolinians lack internet access they need to apply for jobs, do homework or run a small business. We must address this digital divide to give every community in North Carolina an equal opportunity to thrive using today’s technology,” Cooper said.

Locally, Edenton-based internet provider Net-Change is one of 16 companies seeking a grant through the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access To Technology, or GREAT, program that’s offering up to $2 million per project that expands internet in underserved communities. The company’s application states that far northern Chowan has about 250 households and businesses that are unserved, and who are limited to relying on satellite internet or cellular “hotspots.”

Through all these efforts from the governor's office to our legislators to local companies to expand broadband coverage, we can prevail over the urban vs. rural divide's soft bigotry of low expectations that keeps everything past I-95 out of sight and out of mind.

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