Chatham County residents desperate for high-speed internet access

PITTSBORO, N.C. (WTVD) -- They are like deserts amidst North Carolina's plush high-tech forest, but these so-called rural communities are supposed to be feeding into the Triangle's rapid growth.

"It is a time machine because it's like nothing has progressed." Brian Handlon, a new resident of Chatham County, told the ABC11 I-Team. "The internet was a luxury item 10-20 years ago but not today. Now it is no different than needing water and electricity to your house."

The irony, of course, is that Handlon's utility and water bills -- not to mention his other expenses -- are all done online. Brian's wife, Kaye, conducts most of her work as a graphic designer online and often subscribes to online courses to improve her craft.

"When you're trying to watch or be online in a webinar and you're trying to participate and it's dropping out or it's skipping and you can't hear them -- well I paid for this class," Kaye said. "We assumed coming from another rural area, it couldn't be any worse than where we were so it didn't factor into our search."

The Handlons are one couple among many families in Chatham County who say they are increasingly frustrated with the lack of broadband internet access despite the region's population growth and its close proximity to Wake County.

They are now trying to band together with their neighbors -- and local government -- to coax providers to extend their fiber lines their way.

BROADBAND INTERNET: WHAT AND WHERE

Officially, the internet is generally considered a telecommunications service and is thus regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This puts the internet into the same regulatory category as radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.

Unlike public utilities, the internet is not legally classified as an item by which the government must pay or partner with a private company to build and maintain critical infrastructure for all residents to benefit from said utility. The FCC, thus, works with internet service providers (ISPs) to encourage competition and facilitate growth in the private sector that benefits the general public.

According to the FCC, broadband internet is a specific high-speed access to the internet which can upload and download data at significantly higher speeds than the access available via "dial-up" or digital subscriber line (DSL). The current standard for what's considered broadband is 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps for upload.

Broadband technology can be provided to users via copper, cable modem, fiber, satellite or wireless.

Though the federal government (and many state governments) express a desire for broadband technology to go mainstream, ISPs are by no means legally required to expand their networks so that every house on every street in America has broadband.

The FCC last published a broadband access map in June 2018, and the map claims that 99.94 percent of the U.S. population has access to at least one or more providers (93.35 percent has three or more providers).

There is widespread criticism of those statistics, however, because they are based on census-data tracts that only require one house in the entire tract to have access.

The State of North Carolina has its own Broadband Infrastructure Office which aims to improve the accuracy of the maps, among other functions related to expanding access. Chatham County, specifically, is hoping residents can fill out this survey on internet service needs.

THE HIGH COST OF HIGH SPEED

Just as a monthly plan is costly to families wanting internet access, internet service providers must pay a premium to lay down their infrastructure: at least $35,000 per mile for fiber.

There are up to seven internet service providers (ISPs) in Chatham County, though they all have different lines to different tracts and don't often overlap.

CenturyLink, which offers low-speed access to the Handlons, told ABC11 in a statement:

"CenturyLink has made significant network investments in the communities we serve using a variety of delivery technologies, as market and business conditions permit. Even though we've made significant progress, we know there are areas of Chatham County that are not economically feasible for us to serve or upgrade."

Spectrum, likewise, cited costs in its response to ABC11's questions about expanding access.

"We're always looking for opportunities to extend our network and offer Spectrum services to new homes and businesses," spokesman Scott Pryzwansky said. "We evaluate network buildout opportunities on a wide variety of factors, including distance from our current network and the number of potential customers we can serve, as well as geography and construction challenges."

Pryzwansky added that Spectrum "routinely survey locations" but noted that customers -- like the Handlons -- would have to contribute toward the cost of construction.

AT&T, whose fiber has a wide footprint in Raleigh-Durham, says it covers "100 percent of the population" with mobile broadband.

Among all providers, Randolph Communications is the only one who spoke of a specific formula for how they'll weigh costs vs. expansion. The company, based in Asheboro, is a cooperative and not a corporation.

"When they're looking at higher density areas where you've got house after house, that's a bigger return for them," Stephanie Gee, Randolph's Director of Marketing, explained to ABC11. "That's not what our mission is. We say that if you've got a mile, that's 5,280 feet. You need five people within that one mile to justify for us extending the fiber to your home."

Gee said Randolph has so far built 70 miles of fiber in Chatham County.

CHATHAM COUNTY'S INTERNET CONUNDRUM

Residents are not the only ones wanting more.

Darlene Yudell, Chatham County's IT Director, said it has been a years-long battle fighting for providers to expand access -- and fighting North Carolina laws to work independently.

"North Carolina prohibits counties from being a provider," Yudell said. "North Carolina also prohibits counties from being able to provide any kind of funds other than what they call 'small grants.' We are trying to work around the rules. We're trying to find what's legal to do, what's legal to pay for, what's legal to work with."

Part of that creativity includes partnering with Chatham County Schools.

According to the County, Chatham County Schools has been able to secure funding for 88 miles of fiber for high-speed connectivity that will reach all its facilities by February. The school system is also participating in the 1 Million Project, which will provide cellular broadband hotspots to eligible high school students across the county.

Despite that success, Yudell said any meaningful change will have to come from Congress in Washington or the General Assembly in Raleigh.

"It really goes back to the FCC and it goes back to the lobbyists up there paying off people to make decisions that are not in the best interest of citizens and businesses and county operations and town operations," Yudell said. "The truth is even rural homes have electricity so why can't every rural home have an internet connection?"
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