By Beth Lawrence
A lack of broadband internet access impacts many Jackson County residents, and those effects go far beyond binge-watching the newest season of a TV show.
Lack of access to high-speed internet could wind up costing North Carolina multiple billions of dollars, said Edward Lopez, professor of Economics at Western Carolina University.
Lopez and Patricia Kravtin, a utility pole attachment expert, recently authored a study on the dampening effect the cost of connecting to existing utility poles can have on broadband expansion.
The study examined the economic gains if just one of North Carolina’s broadband expansion grants were fully realized and found that it could bring $3.5 billion dollars in revenue.
Lack of broadband expansion has economic impacts – everything from business openings and growth to educational opportunities.
“That question really points to this gigantic issue that is known as the digital divide,” Lopez said. “Everything we know about the digital divide speaks to how folks who don’t have broadband connections are left out of access to a lot of the things in social life that internet connection is becoming important to, say for example telehealth or education.
“The digital divide got even worse with COVID, mostly because everything went remote, and if you didn’t have the ability to hook up to a high-speed connection, you’re left out of that whole equation,” he said.
Part of the obstacle is the high cost of accessing existing utility poles. When internet is brought to a region, cable needs to be erected, usually to a utility pole owned by a private company, electric cooperative or municipality. The costs for a small internet startup to do that can be exorbitant. Co-ops and utilities are not regulated and can charge connection fees, force internet providers to replace existing poles and charge recurring fees.
“The utility pole owners have a perspective on what’s good for their companies and their co-ops,” Lopez said. “And that doesn’t necessarily match up with and meet with the societal perspective.”
There is nothing wrong with charging fees, but the problems come when some entities engage in monopolistic practices, Lopez said.
The state is considering two bills to change some of that, HB 947 and HB815.
Changing things comes down to policymakers’ priorities, Lopez said.
Jackson County appears on paper to have more broadband access than it actually does.
“What the FCC does is they’re counting up households, they call these locations within the county,” Lopez said. “They say, ‘What percentage of those locations has access to (internet)’ at various speeds. The households in Jackson County include the student housing around the campus, so it’s a little bit of a distorted view.”
Even with student housing, Jackson is among the lowest in the state for high-speed access.
Pole access is only one part of a larger equation, said Tiffany Henry, the county’s economic development director.
A bigger part is the misleading data regarding access to broadband that Lopez pointed out.
“We know there are coverage gaps, but we don’t have the data to support that,” Henry said. “One of the things I’ve been working towards is pushing out the North Carolina Broadband survey.”
Funding is available through the state’s GREAT grants program to expand high-speed internet in rural areas, but those grants are restricted to counties and regions that, on paper, don’t have adequate access.
Jackson does show coverage gaps, but statistics do not illustrate the extent of the problem.
That’s why it is important for Jackson residents to participate in the broadband survey, Henry said.
“It’s really what’s going to help us to get funding to actually get broadband, get that infrastructure that middle mile and that last mile,” she said. “Without this data there are basically ineligible census blocks.”
One person in a census block may have service while others do not. If that person participates in the survey and their neighbors do not, that region will count as served.
That person may be within range of service while their neighbors down the hill or street may not.
The data from the survey will map out areas of the county that are not properly served and allow providers to apply for GREAT grants to build or expand their networks based on that.
“If you don’t speak up, nobody knows,” she said. “We have to be able to prove it with the data. Until we can do that, then, (some areas) are not eligible because it’s showing that it’s truly served when it’s not.”
Expansion is “critical” to the county’s and region’s economic sustainability, Henry said.
Internet access touches every part of the economy. Business owners cannot complete point of sale (debit card) transactions, run ecommerce sites, order new stock or access online banking or bookkeeping.
“You can’t have a business and not have reliable internet,” Henry said. “It’s really critical for both our business owners and our residents. Think about COVID when we were shut down. Every business was shut down that did not provide a vital (service). All of your retail shops, they were shut down. What did you see a lot of them do? They tried to shift their inventory and sell it online. If they don’t have internet, they can’t generate revenue.”
To participate in the survey visit NCBroadband.gov/survey, or text “internet” to 919-750-0553. Households and businesses may participate.