WILSON, N.C. (WTVD) -- The COVID-19 pandemic brought renewed focus to broadband inequities across the U.S. as the internet accelerated as a vital component for everything from education to healthcare.
While millions of federal and local dollars are allocated to close the digital divide, one North Carolina city tackled this issue head-on more than a decade ago and emerges as one potential solution for communities still yearning for connectivity.
More than two decades ago, Will Aycock was a GIS coordinator for the city of Wilson. His daily job was made harder by the lack of high-speed internet in the central-eastern county.
"There was just no network sufficient for a lot of the work we were doing. So if you wanted to post GIS datasets to the fire stations for use in the fire trucks and police substation for use in cruisers, you would have to drive around town with a disk and go and you know, put them in all the machines and update everything," he said.
City leaders quickly realized they needed a solution to help businesses throughout Wilson run smoother. Aycock said at first leaders tried to partner with existing broadband providers to connect residents.
"Unfortunately, ultimately, those discussions never really bore fruit. And then our council made the decision to say, 'Okay, since we cannot find a partner, we should go out and construct this network and operate it on behalf of our citizens,'" said Aycock, who is now the general manager of that network.
And that's exactly what they did. In 2008, the broadband network Greenlight provided service to around 1,000 homes. It was the first municipality-owned and operated network in North Carolina and one of the first in the country.
More than ten years later many rural areas of the state still struggle to attract providers. Around 10% of North Carolina households don't have access to even one provider. The state's map for broadband availability highlights the greatest need in the eastern and western portions of North Carolina.
"Internet providers pay for their investments with subscribers. So, if there are fewer subscribers in a mile of road, out in a rural part of the state, they won't make their money back in time," explained Nate Denny, North Carolina's deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity.
Wilson's solution to overcoming this in the early 2000s was to create their own network, but in 2021 that's not a solution other North Carolina communities can adopt.
Shortly after Greenlight started enlisting subscribers, North Carolina lawmakers passed a law largely restricting other municipalities from creating their own network and limiting Greenlight from expanding beyond county lines.
"One of the things that is most troubling for us and most difficult for us to respond to is those people who are just over the county line, you know, and they have Wilson energy, they would love to have a roll man service and we have to explain, 'I'm sorry, we simply can't,' so there's a missed opportunity there certainly for the community, but even more so for those around us that were not able to serve," Aycock said.
Christopher Mitchell studies community networks across the country as a director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He said there is around 83 municipality-run networks across the country and he expects more to be created over the next few years.
Mitchell said the biggest challenge communities face now is the demand for the people who have helped design past networks.
"Will we see more of the cities continue to go through the process and come out the other end and build a network? Or will they find it find that it's too difficult to find materials or engineers and they will decide to go a different route with some kind of partnership?" he questioned.
Mitchell said while not all cities could or would replicate the network Wilson built, the current law limits the potential for Greenlight to partner with counties in need.
"Many cities don't have that capacity, and it would be more difficult for them. And so they would prefer to work with a partner. And frankly, that partner might even be Wilson," Mitchell said.
Denny estimated around 1.1 million North Carolinians still have broadband needs.
"About half of those don't have service because they can't afford it. It's too expensive on a monthly basis for them to purchase internet service. About a third of them don't connect because they don't have the tools they need, whether it's a laptop or even a smartphone, or the skills to fully participate in the digital economy," Denny explained.
Denny who is heading the state's effort to close the digital divide agreed that more partners and providers are a good thing.
"I think competition is crucial, especially in rural parts of the state. Right now, about 10% of North Carolina households don't have access and to even one provider, but we know that where there are multiple providers costs go down and service goes up," Denny said.
Denny is hoping private internet providers will be attracted to rural areas with grants the state is awarding. He said his office has already awarded more than $30 million grants to help connect 16,000 households.
To further close this gap, Denny said the state is planning to use around $1.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan to invest in infrastructure, create affordable internet and award devices and digital literacy to households.
The state is aiming to have 98% of North Carolina households connected to high-speed internet by 2025 and 80% of households subscribed.
Aycock said while Wilson's network has worked well, he doesn't recommend it for everyone.
"In order to solve the issues in places like Raleigh, North Carolina, it's not going to be municipalities. It's not going to be Electric Co-Ops, it's not going to be private sector providers. It's going to be everybody working together in some way to bring solutions to the underserved parts of the state. So what I would say is look to what makes sense within your community," he said.
Over the last twelve years, Greenlight has expanded to serve more than 10,000 subscribers. The network also launched a Gig East Exchange last year offering a central location for start-up businesses to grow.
"Along the way, we understood that our mission is to serve the community and serve the citizens and make sure no one's left behind. Initially, our goal was never to have to be first, it was to make sure we weren't last, make sure our citizens weren't left without. But as we rolled forward, building the network, deploying, improving service, one of the things we realized is we need to do more to take the most advantage of this investment on behalf of the community," Aycock said.