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In rural NC, many are left waiting for internet service that never comes

In rural NC, many are left waiting for internet service that never comes

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Inside her home off a gravel road in the Prospect Hill community of Caswell County, Liz Mason tries uploading a photograph of tomatoes. Then, she waits. Seconds turn to minutes.

Often when this happens, Mason gives up, retreating to the parking lot of the local library for a signal reliable enough to run her business.

“That’s our go-to if I just can’t get it to work. I’d rather do that than reload, reload, reload and drive myself crazy,” she said.

Mason and her husband, Rich, grow organic peppers, tomatoes, melons and salad greens on Honey Bee Hills Farm, a former tobacco farm that they bought four years ago. They joined a community of small farmers in this economically distressed county along the Virginia border.

The Masons are among roughly 500,000 people in North Carolina with unreliable or no high-speed internet access. Most are concentrated in impoverished rural areas. Service providers see little financial incentive to build the costly infrastructure needed to connect people to the internet. As broadband becomes increasingly essential for Americans, the state and federal government have been trying to lure providers to fill in the gaps of service in these communities. It’s proving to be an expensive and time-consuming process.

COVID-19 has forced much of American life online and, with it, pushed many North Carolinians to a breaking point. The fault lines in the digital divide have deepened, leaving much of rural North Carolina on the disconnected side of the chasm.

“Certainly the pandemic has highlighted more than ever the digital inequities that we see in our state, the education opportunities that are missed, the health care and economic development opportunities,” said Jeff Sural, director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office. “Our office receives calls every single day from people who are struggling.”

Caswell County sits between Hillsborough and Danville, Virginia, two well-connected cities. It has none of the challenging terrain that inhibits an internet buildout in the western part of the state.

Still, about 40% of the roughly 23,000 people who make a home here lack sufficient internet, according to the state Broadband Infrastructure Office and 2010 U.S. Census data, the most recent information available.

And that creates daily headaches.

Businessmen hold Zoom meetings in the parking lot of the county’s only library. Students do homework in fast food restaurants. Pastors can’t stream virtual church services.

Since the pandemic, it has taken more than sunshine and fertile soil to fuel the Masons’ farm. It needed technology. Customers have been clamoring for home produce delivery, so the Masons built a website two months ago.

They knew it was a gamble. Their satellite internet service only functions with clear skies and even then it moves slowly.

Now, about half their revenue is derived from customers shopping for produce online. But that business comes at a cost to the Masons.

While Rich harvests vegetables, Liz is stuck coaxing her internet to load orders. She’s logging nearly 40 hours a week on her computer.

A quarter of the time, she is stuck waiting for a signal that never comes.

Slow progress

A decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission made a big promise: broadband in every crossroads community in America.

But progress has moved at a glacial place, hampered by the sheer cost of infrastructure and a spotty understanding of who has broadband and who does not.

It’s called the “last mile” challenge.

The FCC maps broadband based on information offered by internet service providers. But reporting is often disingenuous, Sural said. An entire census tract is counted as having broadband even if just one house in that tract is serviced.

In dozens of rural counties across the state, broadband is a haphazard web of lines and connections. Sometimes, residents on one side of the road have internet service while their neighbors do not.

The method of collecting information on broadband infrastructure has cast widespread doubt on the FCC’s estimate that 21 million people lack broadband. Broadband Now, a consumer advocacy organization that tracks broadband data around the country, estimates that number is closer to 42 million. Honey Bee Hills Farm sits in one of those forgotten pockets.

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Standing in a watermelon patch on her farm, dressed in sandals, work clothes and cap that read “Farmer Strong,” Mason could hear the traffic from nearby N.C. 86. If she lived 1,000 feet closer to the two-lane highway, Mason would be able to get a digital subscriber line, or DSL, which delivers internet over telephone lines. It’s much slower than cable or fiber, but it’s more reliable than the satellite connection that costs her $150 a month to do what she called “the bare minimum.”

Mason asked the DSL provider if it would extend the line to the farm.

“We offered to pay for it, and it’s a no-go. There are no houses behind us, and they won’t run a line,” Mason said.

A glimmer of hope came to Caswell County in 2019.

In the early part of that year, county officials heard about a new state grant program that would pay for broadband infrastructure in economically distressed counties. Caswell County fit the bill. About 20% of its population lives in poverty.

Government officials drummed up support across the county. They vowed to try to get more broadband and cellphone infrastructure built in 2020.

Open Broadband, an internet service provider, secured a $1.5 million grant last May on behalf of Caswell County. They won a bid to bring wireless internet to more than 1,100 homes and 17 businesses.

Within months, though, the state halted the project, saying Open Broadband had not provided proper documentation of financial backing, according to Nicole Meister, a spokeswoman for the state Broadband Infrastructure Office.

Neither Open Broadband nor county officials responded to interview requests.

State officials are working with the county and Open Broadband to try to salvage the grant, Sural said.

“We’ve committed to Caswell County that we will do everything we can to make sure that commitment is met, so that the dollar amount and the number of households to be served are taken care of one way or another,” he said.

A group of local community leaders — pastors, educators, business owners — have been pressing for answers.

“We’ve been wondering what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen?” said group leader Jerry Wilson, a pastor at Beulah Baptist Church in Leasburg.

They bombarded the Broadband Infrastructure Office with nearly 150 emails and met with office officials.

Wilson is tired of watching his congregants struggle.

“This has almost become a civil rights issue,” Wilson said. “Our children and our people are at a disadvantage. The preparedness as it relates to college, our children should have that same opportunity as anyone else.”

Farmers need the internet, too

Caswell County’s economy has long been rooted in its rolling farmland.

“Agriculture is a mainstay, and it always has been,” said Amanda Hodges, the executive director of the Caswell County Chamber of Commerce.

For centuries, the county has been rich in resources. Flue-cured tobacco was developed here, revolutionizing the industry and ushering in an era of prosperity.

Tobacco farms were passed down through generations. Families flourished.

The decline of tobacco in the late 20th century spelled trouble for the economy. The North Carolina Tobacco Buyout program offered some relief, but not all farmers reinvested that money into new crops, leaving their land fallow. The buyout ended in 2014, and for some, that money is long gone.

Those farmers who diversified now face another challenge: the lack of broadband. Such access would help them control pests, monitor soil conditions and improve their yield. Without it, they aren’t advancing like competitors in other counties.

“The future growth of Caswell County depends on high-speed internet,” said Sterling Carter, a former Caswell County commissioner and local historian.

A new generation of farmers, disciples of the farm-to-table movement, are trying to continue the county’s agricultural legacy.

Some are former residents who have returned to the family farm, trying their hand at strawberries or melons. Others, such as the Masons, settled in from out of town, drawn to the abundant farmland and slower pace.

They peddle their produce at farmers’ markets or, like the Masons, try selling their fruits and vegetables online.

Lack of broadband, though, has stymied them. So has spotty and slow cellular service.

Savvy with technology, Mason helps where she can. Since the pandemic, she’s been coaching fellow small farmers on how to install credit card readers on their phones so they can cater to more customers at local markets. Many farmers’ markets are asking their vendors not to accept cash.

But that payment process can take hours. It’s so slow that the Caswell County Farmers Market told farmers to stop accepting EBT cards for payment from low-income residents.

As much as Mason relies on technology to boost her profits, she knows some farmers have given up.

“If you’re trying to learn that in an environment that is inherently frustrating, you may not make that jump. You may decide, ‘I’m done. I’m not going to take this opportunity,’” Mason said.

Solution comes slowly

Lack of broadband access has long been a stranglehold in rural communities across the state.

In these communities, local officials struggle to lure new economic development. The populations here are shrinking, but new residents are reluctant to settle in areas without broadband.

“I think it’s the most vital economic issue facing a lot of rural towns in the state,” said Scott Mooneyham, director of political communications and coordination with the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

Solving the problem, though, has proven to be a Herculean task.

Both federal and state leaders have vowed support and committed funds to plugging the holes in infrastructure that plague rural North Carolina.

Federal officials will invest $16 billion to bring broadband to an estimated six million rural homes and businesses, including up to 169,000 in North Carolina.

But the money will be spread over 10 years. And it will be distributed based on maps collected by the FCC, which often fail to track all the residents living in broadband holes.

State leaders have tried to move the needle, too.

In North Carolina, the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Grant, or GREAT Grant, has now awarded $22 million to internet service providers to build broadband infrastructure in 29 economically distressed rural counties.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the latest winners last month.

“We’re now living in this socially distanced world, and reliable internet is more important than ever,” he said. “It’s an absolute must-have.”

Legislators were set to allocate this week an additional $30 million in Federal CARES Act funding to the GREAT grant program. That money would connect about 30,000 more homes.

All told, legislators have promised $150 million to the grant program over the next 15 years. That’s a fraction, though, of the $1.4 billion Sural estimates it will take to ensure every household in the state has broadband.

In places like Caswell County, residents have fallen further behind, said Shannon Moretz, program director of the Caswell Chapter of the Health Collaborative, which studies health disparities in the Dan River Region.

“There are so many things to assist people in moving further up the food chain that are not accessible here. You want to look for a job? You can’t look online. You want to further your education? The local community college offers classes that you don’t have access to. And how do you expect children to keep up when their parents can’t access Google to help when there is a problem?” Moretz asked.

The message, as Moretz sees it, is clear: “You’re not important.”

Charlotte Observer data reporter Gavin Off contributed to this report.

Lisa O’Donnell is a reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal and can be reached at lshu@wsjournal.com.

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