Opinion

Rural broadband: How long must Orange County wait? – Bonnie Hauser

Google fiber coming? Or a wireless hot spot? Not likely if you live in rural Orange County or most places in rural North Carolina.

How about those great laptops that the schools are issuing to every student? Fantastic right? Not if you don’t have high-speed internet at home. If rural kids don’t get their work done at school, parents may spend the evening in a McDonald’s parking lot where there’s decent, free wifi.

Orange County government is trying to help. They provide high-speed service to county facilities including the Cedar Grove and Efland community centers. There’s even service after hours in the parking lots. Wireless hot spots are available for free from county libraries – but there’s a long wait list. The hot spots work only if you have reasonable cell service.

Access to high speed broadband is not just for homework. It opens up a world of information and opportunities for telecommuting and home businesses. That’s in addition to streaming and gaming, which offer low-cost entertainment. These opportunities are currently not available for rural families.

The Federal Communications Commission says that broadband speeds of 25 megabytes per second (mbps) are needed to live in the modern world. In rural Orange County, speeds of 1.5 mbps are typical – assuming you get service at all. Some call it “the Rural Divide”.

It’s not uniformly bad. If you live near a switch station (there are a few in the county), you might get service of 20-50 mbps. Speeds get slower the farther out you go. Also if you live near a growing urban center, like Mebane or Roxboro, you are likely to see service improvements sooner.

Don’t blame Orange County. The fault lies squarely in private sector providers and the N.C. legislature who have done little to encourage the development of reasonable broadband service in rural areas. It’s expensive to provide infrastructure to remote farms and families, especially when there’s limitless opportunity to expand resources to dense urban centers. Private-sector internet service providers (ISPs) are not competing for rural markets. The legislature doesn’t allow local governments to provide residential internet service at all.

Things are changing. Wireless technologies are making it cheaper to provide infrastructure and service. Plus the federal government is offering “Connect America” funds to encourage service providers upgrade their infrastructure in rural areas. Orange County is making investments too. They could all do more if elected officials and ISPs better understood the rural markets, and if there was more cooperation with electric companies and other public utility providers.

Last year, Orange County did a survey, which confirmed strong interest in rural broadband – but it wasn’t enough to attract private sector investments. NC Broadband has a survey underway now to understand how the lack of service is impacting education throughout rural North Carolina. Without better information from us, private-sector interests will find the easiest path to profits – leaving most of us without service.

To update our community on this important topic, Schley Grange will host its first meeting on Rural Broadband. State Rep. Graig Meyer, NC Broadband representative Glenn Knox, and Orange County’s Jim Northrup who will explain what’s happening in the county and throughout the state, and things that you can do to help move things along.

The meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 8, at the Schley Grange Hall 3416 Schley Road. All are welcome.

Bonnie Hauser is the legislative chair for Schley Grange and the founder of Orange County Voice. She lives in rural Orange County.

What’s next

A community meeting on Rural Broadband will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 8, at the Schley Grange Hall 3416 Schley Road. All are welcome.

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