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Advocate: NC approach to funding broadband flawed

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Everyone seems to agree that fast, affordable internet access is important in rural North Carolina.

Local leaders for cities, counties, schools and economic development all talk about it. Republicans and Democrats both agree on it, and even campaign on the issue.

Yet the state only put $10 million toward expanding access to broadband last year — and that small pot of money may be spent on connections that are simply too slow, say both local lawmakers and an advocate for broadband expansion in rural communities.

Last week, the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office got about 30 applications seeking $17 million — $7 million more than available — for broadband projects from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program, according to Maggie Bizzell, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Information Technology. The broadband office is still reviewing the applications and details aren't available yet, she said, though she noted state law requires all applications to be posted online for 30 days before they can be funded.

It's possible the state will fund some good projects; the GREAT Program's scoring system prioritizes providing high speeds to poor communities, based on its enabling legislation.

However, North Carolina's approach to funding broadband is extremely flawed and potentially wasteful, according to Estelle “Bunny” Sanders, a local broadband advocate.

And Sanders is not alone. She's gotten the ear of local lawmakers, including state Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who agree the state needs to invest more money in internet access — and at connection speeds that truly qualify as “broadband.”

Sanders, the 76-year-old former mayor of Roper, has been involved in efforts to expand broadband access for more than a decade. She helped study the problem in 2009, through a research project conducted by the Windows on the World Technology Center, an entity since absorbed into Beaufort County Community College. In collaboration with Elizabeth City State University, the center studied broadband access across ECSU's primary service region of 21 counties.

Sanders has stayed passionate about broadband access, and what she describes as its potential to attract businesses, transform schools and uplift communities.

That's part of why she finds the GREAT Program so disheartening. It will pay for internet connections as slow as 10 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission doesn't consider that broadband — and hasn't for years, she said.

“The 10 Mbps is a telecom joke,” she said, alluding to her belief that telecommunication companies too strongly influenced the drafting of the GREAT Program.

Twenty-five megabits per second equates to about 3 megabytes per second, or a gigabyte in just under six minutes. According to streaming services' websites, 10 Mbps is enough to stream normal video — suggesting 10 Mbps could support telemedicine, teleconferencing or other, non-leisure uses of video — and spokesmen for both ECSU and College of the Albemarle indicated last week that 10 Mbps can be enough for students.

However, that's assuming a student or their household isn't using any bandwidth on other devices, such as other computers or mobile devices.

Moreover, Sanders said that internet providers routinely exaggerate their service speeds. In reality, a “10 Mbps” package is often 8 Mbps or fewer, she said. North Carolina also doesn't independently test internet providers' connection speeds, instead relying on their reported speeds to the FCC, she said.

Even if the GREAT Program funded projects offering 25 Mbps at minimum, that would still have limited value in economic development. Large businesses need higher speeds — much higher, in the case of information technology companies, financial institutions and other “white-collar” employers.

“The number that I have repeatedly heard they are looking for is at least 'one gig' level of service,” Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission Director Christian Lockamy said in an email last week. Such businesses often want their employees to have fast, reliable internet at home as well, so they can work out of the office, he added.

Setting aside questions of speed, Sanders said there's another, fundamental flaw to North Carolina's approach to broadband: the state doesn't truly know how many people lack access to broadband. The state's broadband plan claims high levels of access in northeastern North Carolina — sometimes approaching 100 percent — but that's not based on reviewing U.S. Census blocks, the smallest population unit the Census uses, she explained. More simply put, the state will consider a county served just because one, densely populated part of it has broadband access.

Sanders is not the only person to observe that issue; The Verge, a tech-oriented website, similarly reported on the issue in September, in a piece titled “How Bad Maps are Ruining American Broadband.”

Sanders said North Carolina needs to thoroughly and independently study who has internet access and who doesn't, and down to the block group level. Ideally, the state would identify the poorest, most under-served populations and invest in pilot projects there, she said. Once the state figures out how to help the most challenged communities, serving others should be easier, she said.

Sanders also said the state should repeal a law preventing electrical cooperatives from getting certain federal funds for offering broadband service. Cooperatives and other local utilities' infrastructure can position them to offer affordable service.

Asked about offering broadband service, Albemarle Electric Membership Corp. spokesman Chris Powell said the Hertford-based cooperative recognizes the importance of broadband, but it feels telecommunications companies are better suited to offer it than AEMC.

He said the cooperative is considering installing internet fiber for its delivery points and substations, which could make it feasible to offer broadband to large businesses or institutions, including schools.

Sanders has also met with state lawmakers on the issue, including Steinburg and state Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan.

Steinburg said Sanders has raised valid concerns, and she’s right to consider 10 Mbps an obsolete speed. He said he would consider all options to expanding broadband access, including allowing local governments to offer service.

“We've got to make things happen,” Steinburg said.

Goodwin also said “25 Mbps is the standard,” and he'd like to see the state verify broadband speeds.

He also agreed with Sanders that lack of broadband is a real problem. He said he’s seen school children huddled around businesses or other sources of wireless internet. That's a concern because schools are shifting to computers and away from textbooks, making the internet essential for homework.

State Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, said broadband investment is a “top priority” for him because it's key to economic development. He also agreed the minimum standard for broadband is 25 Mbps, but didn't say he opposed any funding of 10 Mbps projects.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, could not be reached for comment for this story, but has often said he supports broadband investment.

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