RALEIGH (May 29, 2018) – The NC Rural Center hears regularly from rural parents who park outside a local library or fast-food joint until 9 or 10 p.m. on weeknights – just so their children can get a WiFi signal and do their homework.
“They’ve got a laptop…. They just don’t have that Internet,” declared Tom Campbell, moderator of a panel discussion on rural broadband today at the Rural Center’s annual Rural Day. “It’s kind of like we’re trying to deliver a 21st-century education with 20th-century infrastructure.”
Maria Pitre-Martin, deputy state superintendent at the NC Department of Public Instruction, agreed with Campbell. Personalized learning is the future of education, she said, and today’s students need to engage with multimedia resources via the Internet.
Yet too many face what’s become known as the “homework gap” – another disadvantage for rural students.
Two decades ago, North Carolina was a leader in installing “middle mile” digital infrastructure to schools, colleges, universities, libraries and hospitals, said Campbell.
“But like many states, we’ve had difficulty covering that last mile,” he said.
North Carolina’s urban centers have ready access to broadband service. Yet Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Northeastern North Carolina, said a survey revealed 70% of his co-op members say they lack reliable, affordable broadband service. Some still rely on dial-up service.
“We need options – and we need them yesterday,” Wynn said, noting that rural access to a “smart” power grid requires Internet access.
“Broadband is a must if we have any chance of seeing rural prosperity in business, education, health care and family life,” he said.
There have been success stories. In one instance, a start-up called Eastern Carolina Broadband mounted a wireless transmitter atop a farmer’s grain elevator in Lenoir County to extend a signal to an area struggling with slow Internet speeds.1
Pitre-Martin said some school systems have mounted wireless transmitters on school buses that are “strategically” parked on weekends so students have high-speed access from home.
“We have some very creative educators out there,” she said.
Wilkes Communications used federal stimulus money as part of $44 million it invested to provide 99% broadband access in rural, hilly Wilkes County. “We are probably the most connected county in the state,” said Eric Cramer, Wilkes’ president and CEO.
Wilkes has since bought six phone companies and is working with Stokes County as well to create a statewide broadband cooperative.
Legislative leaders said last week2 that the 2018-19 state budget will include $10 million to provide grants to providers of up to 30% of the cost to extend rural broadband.3
Speakers at the Rural Center session generally agreed that $10 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the need – but that it’s a good start. They also agreed there will be no single source of money for rural access – government, Internet provider and philanthropic dollars will all be required.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Nelle Hotchkiss of the Rural Center’s Board of Directors. “Connecting the last mile is going to require a mix of providers using a variety of technologies.”
And Gov. Roy Cooper told the audience that companies studying rural North Carolina for expansion want a well-trained workforce, and broadband access is critical to training that workforce.
“We need meaningful investments in order to get last-mile coverage, to get private investment,” Cooper said. “Investments in broadband can help us close the homework gap.”
3https://ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Budget/2018/conference_committee_report_2018_05_28.pdf, p. G6; https://ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Budget/2018/S99-CCSMMxr-2_v2.pdf, pp. 219-225.