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.
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.
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.
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.