Internet access and Sara Nichols of Land of the Sky.
Sara Nichols, the energy and economic development manager for Land of Sky Regional Council stands beside her presentation materials showing broadband internet access coverage in several Western North Carolina counties on Jan. 16, 2024. Colby Rabon / Wmforo

When Kathryn Clemens moved to a mountain home outside Murphy in April 2020, she was told she would have internet access.

As a patient advocate with  Graves’ Disease who helps others around the world manage their disease, she primarily communicates through video calls. “It’s 100% online,” she said of her business. 

Once Clemens moved in, however, things got complicated.

She discovered that the Frontier account had been transferred to a new user, and she was unable to open an account in her name because the internet service provider, also called an ISP, had stopped taking on new customers to cope with the spike in usage during the pandemic's early lockdowns.

Clemens, 58, looked into satellite service, but found that her property had too many trees. So, she had no choice but to use her Verizon cellphone data hotspot, even though cellphone signals are often unreliable in mountain areas. It was far from ideal.

“For two years, my phone was in the back bedroom window, and I would hotspot to my iPad,” she said.

While she now uses a signal booster so she can receive data throughout her home, the speeds are abysmal: usually around 600 kilobits per second, far below the Federal Communications Commission standard of 25 megabits per second (mbps) for downloading and 3 mbps for uploading.

Her lack of reliable internet access affects her own health as well as that of her clients. Clemens is high-risk for COVID, works from home and lives 20 miles away from her general practitioner across the state line in Ducktown, Tennessee, so she would like to use telehealth.

“There's all kinds of reasons that you need a doctor but don't necessarily need a physical exam,” she said. With her current speeds, however, telehealth is out of the question.

When asked to comment, Verizon spokesperson Karen Schultz responded last week via email: “This is a very dynamic time for our network in Western North Carolina as we make significant enhancements and improvements to the area.

“This past year alone we deployed numerous new network solutions in Western North Carolina including new macro towers, small cell sites, capacity additions on current sites, 5G service on many cell sites and repeaters to increase 4G LTE capacity and coverage.”

Schultz offered to have engineers reach out to Clemens, and Wmforo shared Clemens’s information. Since then, Clemens’s internet access has been worse than ever. Even though she has spent at least a dozen hours communicating with tech support using her neighbor’s internet and driven three hours round trip to the Verizon store multiple times, the problem still has not been resolved.

A possible solution may be on the horizon, however.

The Cable Company, a local ISP, recently installed fiber-optic cable in Murphy and other areas in Cherokee County, and Clemens has been told that her neighborhood will get broadband internet access with speeds of at least 100/20 mbps in three to six months.

Though people have complained about The Cable Company’s service in local social media groups, citing days without service and rude staff, she remains optimistic. “I hope it's just growing pains, and they get it all worked out,” she said.

How many residents in Western North Carolina lack broadband internet access is unclear, according to Sara Nichols, the energy and economic development manager at Land of Sky regional council, which serves Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.

The best estimates come from county data compiled this year by the North Carolina Division of Broadband and Digital Equity. Access varies wildly from county to county, according to those figures.

Nearly all of Watauga County enjoys download and upload speeds that meet federal minimum standards, but only a third of locations in Swain County do.

The pandemic brought increased attention and funding to expand broadband nationwide, with the 2020 American Rescue Plan Act alone providing up to $362 billion in funds, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, both federal and North Carolina state laws make connecting underserved areas a complex, patchwork process of smaller grants distributed to a variety of providers targeting as few as a few hundred households at a time.

As the nation relies more on telehealth to provide important medical services, the limitations of this funding structure become more significant.

Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission regional council, which serves Cherokee County, told Wmforo via email that broadband projects are currently underway in all seven counties covered by the council.

However, he acknowledged that the wait may still be measured in years. “There are areas that are slated to receive internet access, but it could take up to five years before they receive that service,” he wrote.

“One of the difficult things about this issue is that there isn’t a one-size fits all solution,” he wrote.

Limited federal internet access data

According to Bill Sederburg, a Buncombe County resident and member of the WNC Broadband Project community advocacy group, one of the most consequential policies that shaped broadband rollout in the United States was the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

As another WNC Broadband Project member, Stagg Newman, explained in an email, the act does not define internet access as a universal service, as earlier iterations of the act did for television and radio.

“The act relied on competitive markets to push innovation and deployment and did not recognize that competition in infrastructure is not viable in many rural areas,” wrote Newman, who served as chief technologist for the FCC from 1998 to 1999.

One significant consequence is that the government has not consistently kept records about where broadband is located. When the FCC released the first nationwide public broadband access map in 2011, it was riddled with errors that overestimated internet access.

Most notably, the map would list an entire census-designated tract as having broadband if only one address did. Since government grants are distributed based on data identifying underserved areas, such errors can prevent areas that need broadband from getting it. The onus is on residents to report incorrect data.

“Broadband shouldn’t be a luxury,” said Nichols, who leads the West Next Generation Network broadband initiative and has helped many residents report incorrect mapping data. “We still need people to go in and look at how they're represented,” she said.

State-imposed hindrances

Adding further constraints, local governments in North Carolina cannot create and run their own broadband networks. This law, House Bill 129, became effective in 2011, in response to the town of Wilson, outside Raleigh, building its own broadband network for its 50,000 residents in 2008.

According to Bloomberg.com, cable provider Time Warner lobbied heavily to get the bill passed, donating $6.3 million to state politicians over four years. So, while governmental bodies such as Land of Sky and Western North Carolina’s other four regional councils — non-regulatory, non-taxing partnerships between local counties and cities — can work with internet service providers, the providers must apply for funding.

As a result, funding for broadband expansion is applied in a piecemeal fashion. It depends upon a willing ISP, the right grant and municipal assistance to come together. And it does not necessarily come to the most populated areas first.

For instance, County Cablevision partnered with Yancey County’s Economic Development Commission on a five-year, $25 million plan that gave the county’s 17,550 residents the fastest internet speeds in the state in 2015.

“They had leadership before a lot of folks were talking about broadband,” Nichols said, “and they aggressively pursued some pretty significant funding for the time.”

In the more populated Western North Carolina counties of Buncombe, Henderson, and Haywood, the WNC Broadband Project and WestNGN partnered up to attempt a larger regional initiative in 2016.

Modeled on an earlier effort in the Research Triangle that brought major investments from AT&T, Charter and Google, the initiative was not as successful, according to both Sederburg and Nichols.

Sederburg said one reason was that internet service providers had begun to move away from large regional infrastructure building to concentrate on smaller areas.

Nichols pointed out the challenges of the region’s mountainous topography. “We have the most expensive projects in the state,” she said.

WestNGN therefore pivoted to looking for smaller underserved areas based on survey data they collected from 2016 to 2019. As Nichols noted, many of these areas can be found within urban areas like Asheville and Hendersonville.

As an example, she described a housing development built in the 1970s or 1980s to accommodate 10 homes that has now expanded to 20, with those 10 newer homes currently without internet access.

Getting those homes connected can often require expensive overhauls, Nichols said. Since providers tend to expand in areas that will be profitable, WestNGN often has to turn to stop-gaps like mobile broadband, provided by cell towers, to ensure those residents can go online.

One additional challenge with mapping the region accurately is that internet service providers are not required to share their data with local officials. “This has really set North Carolina back compared to other states,” Sederburg said.

“If your provider is going to get a million-dollar grant, they ought to be required to share with the state office detailed maps of where they currently have fiber, and where they provide service to and who they provide service to.”

The lack of data can disproportionately affect low-density pockets in counties designated as urban by government bodies, such as small towns or unincorporated areas separated by mountain ridges, especially since the Census Bureau expanded its criteria for urban counties for the 2020 Census.

The bureau now designates Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison counties as metropolitan, or non-rural. Advocacy organizations such as the NC Rural Center classify only Buncombe and Henderson counties as non-rural.

“People in many areas of Buncombe County still identify as living in a rural community,” said Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells. Their challenges in getting internet access more accurately reflect rural struggles.

When the pandemic lockdowns began, for instance, Wells worked with Nichols to ensure that community centers in areas like Sandy Mush had high-speed internet so people could log on to telehealth appointments from the parking lot.

Those areas are now receiving some of the federal pandemic funds dedicated to expanding broadband. Skyrunner recently received a $1.8 million dollar grant to provide high-speed internet to the area.

Shifting from internet access to equity

Even as more initiatives are rolled out, those working on broadband are beginning to notice a shift in priorities. “The first phase was getting people educated about it,” Sederburg said.

“The second phase was really to start building out and people having access to high speed internet. And the third phase is what we’ve moved into — equity and inclusion.”

One of the most crucial programs when it comes to increasing digital equity has been the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts of up to $30 per month off internet bills — and $75 per month for those living on tribal lands, where costs are higher.

While $30 off a $100 monthly bill may still leave internet access unaffordable, Nichols said, some providers have lowered their own prices to $30 per month, essentially providing the service for free.

Even so, Sederburg said, the WNC Broadband Project had some challenges getting people enrolled. Even though it enlisted University of North Carolina Asheville students to hand out informational cards about the program, the sign-up process was itself a deterrent.

“You really needed to have an organization there that would hold people's hands as they went about doing that,” he said. Data confirms that Western North Carolina has a lower sign-up rate than the rest of the state, according to multiple nonprofits.

Of greatest concern is that the funding for ACP discounts is due to run out in May. “That would be a huge step backwards,” Sederburg said.

On January 8, FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged Congress to approve an additional $6 billion in funding for the program. Otherwise, nearly 23 million Americans could lose their access to affordable internet unless the program is extended, including over 192,000 people in congressional districts that include WNC who currently use it.

Despite these challenges, Sederburg remains optimistic.

“It's exciting to see an issue such as broadband be a policy success in this era of such partisan political bickering,” he said. “The general feeling is that we're making good progress.”

For residents like Kathryn Clemens, that progress can’t come fast enough. Her lack of broadband internet access has impacted not just her work but her health.

“I'm coming out of remission, and I blame Verizon, because it's the only stress in my life,” she said.

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Sara Murphy is a contributing writer to Wmforo. Email [email protected] to contact the CPP news team.