Native American rural NC communities on tap for long-waited internet broadband

Elaina Athans Image
Wednesday, November 23, 2022
Native Americans in rural NC communities to get high-speed internet
EMBED <>More Videos

Governor Roy Cooper says there are more than a million North Carolinians are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Native Americans living in rural communities say they are being shut out of modern times and have no access to high-speed internet. They've endured a fight for connectivity.

Governor Roy Cooper says there are more than a million North Carolinians are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Mary Jo Wilkes is going to school now at UNC Pembroke and loves staying on campus where the logging online is a seamless process.

She can vividly remember difficulties during her senior year of high school while living at home with her parents in Prospect.

Wilkes, like other Native American children, didn't have high-speed internet lines streaming through the rural community.

"I kind of felt like we weren't as important to other people, because we're a minority as we're just such a poor community and a poor county. I felt like they didn't care as much," said Wilkes.

She was left feeling isolated in an inter-connected world.

"I didn't have a signal here to do my homework," said Wilkes.

Some kids had to head into nearby Pembroke and sit outside the McDonald's restaurant for free, stable service.

The problem exacerbated during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order when everything was done online.

Buses carrying hotspots came into communities to help students connect.

"It still wasn't a good connection," said Wilkes. "It was very hard trying to get on zooms. Half the time I couldn't even hear the class or it would be breaking up."

Her mom Danita Wilkes ended up shelling out $200 a month for satellite internet.

The high-cost service a luxury in Robeson County, as it is one of North Carolina's poorest counties. More than a quarter of the population live below the poverty line.

The US Census shows nearly 44% of the county's population is American Indian and largely members of the Lumbee Tribe.

"They looked down or did not looked at us as it being not as important," said Danita Wilkes, who reached out to politicians and even petitioned a communications company to bring internet.

A group of neighbors willing to invest $5,000 a piece for installation.

"We said we have children, we want it. They said no," said Danita Wilkes.

These communities will soon begin seeing a change.

North Carolina received a $17.5 million USDA grant to bring connectivity to distressed counties.

The grant area covering more than 200 miles with fiber lines. The changes will take place in Warren and Halifax counties, as well as people living the Haliwa-Saponi tribal area.

The effort will help more than 2,500 unserved addresses and a 100 plus businesses.

The grant will provide a $75 per month discount for eligible, low-income households on tribal lands.

"That's going to be opening a whole wealth of opportunities," said North Carolina Indian Affairs Director Greg Richardson.

"It's going to mean a lot in terms of our state, in terms of education, economic development."

Lindell Lynch lives in Halifax County and is going to benefit.

She trying to make a better life for herself and taking online classes relying solely on a hotspot.

"I'm excited about it. I'm excited. I hope it serves majority of the area," said Lynch.

The Wilkes family were connected to a major carrier this past July.

The service is still spotty at times, but is bringing the family into the 21 century after it has felt long over-looked.

"We want to succeed just like everybody else. I want to get a biology degree. I want to become a doctor," said Wilkes. "I want to stay connect to society just like everybody else does."

Click here to see more Native American Heritage Month stories