The coronavirus has laid bare a number of critical needs, but those needs are not limited to public health alone.
Internet access — the great digital divide between “haves” and “have nots” — has risen to the forefront these past six months. For all the talk about connectivity — everyone’s bragging these days about 5G — it can be pretty hard for some communities to get reasonable, reliable speeds sufficient enough to see a doctor over the computer or have a kid log in to his classroom remotely.
Those two uses are among the most valued the past six months as remote services and usage have grown. Yet for thousands of homes here, that’s still not an option.
Moore County scores a 67.5 in terms of broadband availability, according to the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office. Of 100 counties, we’re No. 46. Not awful, but not exactly something worth bragging about.
Indeed, if you look at a map showing census blocks where internet connectivity is poorest, there is a rather fat diagonal swath running through the heart of Moore County and spreading out along its western boundary with Montgomery County.
And so it was welcome news last week when U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, who represents many of those homes, announced federal money would be used to help connect several hundred folks to a modern broadband network.
A $3 million project will provide broadband internet service to 1,300 homes in rural Moore County. Hudson was joined by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at Faith Baptist Church in West End to talk up the project.
Money for the grant and others nationwide came from $100 million in appropriations from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act.
“I understand the new haves and have nots in our society are those who have access to broadband and those who don’t,” Hudson said. “The COVID shutdown has really underscored the importance of it because every family out there understands that their kid needs access to high-speed access to do their studies.
“Many families have learned they need that access so they can use telehealth, and many folks working from home realize they need that access to broadband.”
Exactly. Yet providing this kind of access is expensive for utility companies. In urban, more dense parts of the state, it’s cheaper because you can serve more people over shorter distances. Consider, Randolph Communications will build more than 48 miles of fiber and connect 3,333 people to high-speed internet. In some cities, you can serve that many people in just a mile or two.
This federal assistance is meaningful for small rural providers like Randolph Communications, based in Asheboro. It serves folks across eight counties, and those customers are spread out. Meaningful expansion of broadband would normally take years, if even then.
“There’s a need, but how do you make a business case? It would take years and years if you didn’t have that support from the grant,” said Kim Garner, CEO of Randolph Communications.
This is not just about a faster computer or iPad so folks can have better access to Netflix. Kids who live out in these rural areas might one day might not have to drive to their school parking lot on weekends to access the Wi-Fi — or drive to a larger community to get reasonable free access.
And what about farmers, who can’t do that? Farming is an increasingly sophisticated science that relies on internet access for crop management and operations. Connectivity will be important for these folks.
“This is life-changing, folks,” Perdue said. “You are going to be stunned with the kind of speed that you’re going to get with the fiber technology coming. It’s city speeds.”
This grant program is a good example of our federal dollars coming home to help. We’re glad to see it.