Category: Technology

Rural Broadband – Yancey and Mitchell Counties

The Challenge 

The North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office (NC BIO) estimates that at least 637,000 North Carolinians lack broadband at the minimum speed recommended by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Most of these residents are in rural counties, although the rural/urban distinction is not the only determinant of broadband access. Income also plays a role in access to broadband—only 13% of households in rural counties with an income of $75,000 or greater lack access to broadband. In general, states with larger rural populations have lower broadband adoption rates, because of the cost and difficulty of installation, among other factors.

In Mitchell and Yancey Counties, potential employment and economic development opportunities were stifled by the lack of broadband in the area. Local businesses struggled, and a local Glen Raven manufacturing plant was on the brink of closing because of the lack of broadband. Attracting and retaining employees with appropriate skills was becoming difficult for local manufacturers like BRP and educational institutions in the community were not able to provide programs that could train local students for these jobs. Tourism also suffered as hotels, restaurants, and more were unable to attract customers, run their business, or provide internet services for their guests.

Roadblocks for providing broadband at the municipal level make solutions more difficult. North Carolina state law places requirements on municipalities that make it difficult to provide broadband for their residents. As a result, it is nearly impossible for municipalities to build out new broadband networks, making collaborative partnerships necessary to overcome rural broadband accessibility problems.

The Solution

A $25.3 million Community Connect Grant from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service in 2010 made it possible for a collaborative partnership between the counties and Country Cablevision to install fiber optic cables in Mitchell and Yancey Counties. They completed the first leg of the network in 2014 and added more legs as more customers requested the service. Almost 1500 miles of cable were needed to expand broadband access and more than 900 miles were installed using grant funds. Since the counties were unable to fund or regulate the infrastructure improvements themselves, the partnership with the USDA and Country Cablevision were vital to installing the network and getting high-speed broadband to 97% of Mitchell and Yancey County homes and businesses.

 

New routing switches are installed to support Country Cablevision’s expanded broadband service in rural North Carolina.

The Players

This collaboration is funded by US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, which provided the initial grant to expand broadband in both counties. Because of the difficulty of installation and the high cost-per-customer, Dean Russell, the program manager, states that the project “would not have been built without the government grant.” Nationwide, this USDA grant program has brought broadband to almost six million rural Americans. The county governments formed a public-private partnership with Country Cablevision, an internet provider, to install the nearly 1,000 miles of cable. Local businesses and residents were able to support the installation by signing up for service, which meant that Country Cablevision could afford to do last mile installation by ensuring a return on their investment based on the rate of users who subscribed for service.

The Promise

Mitchell and Yancey Counties now have over 97% of homes and businesses connected to high-speed fiber optic broadband, with speeds up to 100 megabits per second for homes and 1 gigabyte per second for businesses. These are some of the fastest speeds in the state, competing with metro areas like Charlotte and Raleigh. This access enables small businesses in the area to prosper, including Homeplace Brewing, whose owner says without expansion of broadband they would not be able to complete business logistics, run their point of sale network, or offer free Wi-Fi to their customers. Broadband access also made it possible for new employment partnerships to form, including between Mayland Community College and the BRP manufacturing plant, who work collaboratively through the College’s advanced manufacturing program to train and retain workers in the area.

Other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) seek to use similar partnerships to install broadband in other rural areas of North Carolina. The French Broad Electric Membership Corporation, which serves the North Carolina counties of Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell and Yancey, is conducting a similar six-phase broadband initiative, of which three phases are complete. Although sometimes complicated because of restrictions on municipal involvement in broadband installation and rules governing treating broadband as a utility, service is expanding to some of the most rural parts of the state with the help of collaborative partnerships among federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and residents, who can now get and stay connected to vital 21st century technology.

Broadband’s Impact on Economic Development: A Lack of Access to Social Capital

Regions across North Carolina have had significantly varying paces of economic development. Social capital levels offer one lens through which to view these regional disparities. Economic development of a given place can greatly depend on the presence and impact of social capital, which includes social culture, norms and collaboration that promote development activities and possible economic reform.

Social capital can be used and leveraged to achieve the goals of a collective group with an outcome of more economic capital due to connections. Social capital increases the efficiency of social exchange, allowing for communication and collaboration to occur. There are three types of social capital that can be leveraged: bonding, bridging, and linking. Bonding, or in group cohesion, refers to the relationships built among individuals with characteristics or group membership in common.  Bridging, or out of group cohesion, refers to relationships built among individuals, communities, or groups with differing background characteristics or group membership.  Linking is an extension of bridging capital and includes networks and organizations that provide connections across power dynamics, giving access to more resources.

North Carolina residents with no or low access to quality broadband are missing out on important economic benefits of cultivating social capital through connections (Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural NC Report 2019). Bonding capital can occur through digital connections, bringing individuals of a group together to increase social connections within a group. Bridging capital could be improved by connectivity via broadband access, because many groups of different backgrounds have difficulty connecting face to face or may not even be in proximity to the other group but could greatly benefit from this relationship. Linking social capital is a way in which many communities connect to more powerful networks, allowing for access to thought leadership, information, and resource allocation through broadband access. Without access to this communication, community voices may be left out of the economic development process and therefore have unequal opportunities. Although economic growth will require extended access to Broadband to attract industries providing jobs, this also impacts communities’ ability to form and leverage social capital to improve economic development at all three levels: bonding, bridging, and linking.

In today’s advanced technological world, many connections occur in ways that are not face to face. Many technological platforms have been leveraged to create more efficient connections, which has strengthened the use of social capital for economic development. However, in the state of North Carolina, there is a broadband access rate of 68%, which is likely a conservative estimate. Full broadband access, a necessary utility to access and leverage social capital to improve economic conditions, holds a promise to increase economic mobility for both groups and entire communities.

Sources:

American Community Survey 5-year estimates 2017: Access to Broadband

Laycock, K.E. & Mitchell, C.L. Climatic Change (2019) 152: 47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2360-6 (graphic)

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=2ahUKEwiBx6KppZrmAhUjnuAKHUl2BEQQFjABegQIBRAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Famericaninnovators.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2019%2F03%2FUnlocking-the-Digital-Potential-of-Rural-America.pdf&usg=AOvVaw05MOLQvM2VAbQXTaWONs7D

Accountable Care Communities Offer An Opportunity to Address Healthcare Disparities at the Systems Level

In a previous blog post, which you can find here, ncIMPACT shared information around NCCARE 360, an interdisciplinary referral tool being implemented in the state of North Carolina’s medical care systems. As we continue to research impacts of the health of a community, we find it increasingly important to look at the way data around how changes become integrated with existing cultural norms and daily lives of community members in North Carolina. NCCARE 360 is part of an effort to implement a model of Accountable Care Communities (ACCs).

ACCs

ACCs aim to address health at the community level through addressing the social drivers of health and looks at health on a systems level to better coordinate healthcare with a wide variety of stakeholders within a community. This coordination includes involving non-traditional partners in health initiatives, such as faith communities and academic researchers. ACCs have an underlying value of authentic community engagement. In the context of the ACC model, it is not enough to go into communities and give out information. Stakeholders must work alongside communities to create a power dynamic that gives community members agency and self-determination. Under the ACC model, the goal is to elevate the voices of community members who are most impacted by health disparities. For example, specific race groups are more likely to experience disparities within population health–those voices need to be amplified within this model.

 

 

Health Inequities by Race

In fact, the data suggests that many health initiatives have historically neglected or taken advantage of specific race populations, such as the Native American and African American communities (see Black-White Disparities in Health Care Report, released by the American Medical Association[1]). Racial disparities in health begin even at the stage of conception. African American babies are more than twice as likely to die during childbirth than white or Hispanic babies in North Carolina. While white babies die at a rate of 5.4% in North Carolina (comparable to the Hispanic rate of 5.5%), Black babies die at a rate of 12.4% (see figure below from NCDHHS).

 

 

Maternal mortality rates are alarming in general, but when analyzed by race, it is evident that Black mothers have a totally different experience during pregnancy and childbirth than their racial counterparts. In 2013, in the state of North Carolina, the maternal mortality rates for Black and white women was almost the same, with the white racial category making a large jump up in rates and the Black racial category briefly falling. However, since then, the numbers have since diverged once more. Today, a Black woman in North Carolina is 3x as likely to die from giving birth than a white woman. From 1999-2013, Black women accounted for 49% of the deaths due to childbirth in the state of North Carolina, while African Americans make up 22% of the state’s population (https://schs.dph.ncdhhs.gov/data/maternal/).

While working with the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust on their targeted health strategies, our interviews with experts repeatedly brought up the importance of cultural competency at the systems level to address disparity. For example, one anonymous interviewee we spoke with mentions struggles with healthcare perceptions for older African American men:

“He grew up in a time where he knew studies were being done on Black people. Telling him he needs to go to the doctor brings up distrust for him. Entering into those large facilities, he’s not inclined to do that. He needs a provider that looks like him and be able to come to a place that feels safe.”

 

These disparities are alarming and to begin addressing these health inequalities, research and reports indicate that strategically culturally appropriate care, community capacity building, and homegrown community leader involvement will all need to be present as a start to making the state’s health system more culturally appropriate. These non-traditional partnerships implemented in Accountable Care Communities will require a breaking down of walls for everyone involved–silos will need to be removed for an integrated community care system.

For more guidance on implementing the ACC model, please see the following guide, provided by Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and Duke Endowment, visit http://nciom.org/nc-health-data/guide-to-accountable-care-communities/

 

 

[1] https://www.ama-assn.org/about/ama-history/history-african-americans-and-organized-medicine

 

 

 

What’s on Your Dashboard? Dialing up a Future Ready Community

In a recent series on this blog, Anita Brown-Graham detailed four drivers of change affecting our workforce: demographics, automation, business model changes, and the rise of the individual. Governments are dealing with these same drivers in ways that extend beyond the workforce. On this shifting ground of disruption and uncertainty stand local government leaders, who know they need to prepare for the future but often feel they have little guidance on how current trends are likely to affect their communities in the medium- and long-term. This is especially true in smaller, less wealthy jurisdictions without planning staff or the financial means to contract for such services. Big or small, rural or urban or somewhere in-between, communities of all size and type need to be “future ready.”

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What You Told Us in the ncIMPACT Planning Survey

We launched ncIMPACT in 2017 to help public officials in North Carolina navigate critical policy challenges across a wide range of topics, including health, education, economic development, criminal justice, public finance, and the environment. As we planned this new initiative, we wanted to hear from practitioners and other citizens about the most vexing policy issues in their community and in the state as a whole, and what we could do to help. As such, in January 2017 we drafted an online survey and distributed it with the assistance of various peer associations and a targeted Twitter campaign. Over the course of two months, we received 154 responses to our survey. Please read on for an analysis of our results.

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