Christopher Carrie loves rolling up his sleeves and streaking his arms with dirt to tend to his beloved camellias and crocuses, some of the flowers growing in his garden in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains. But after washing his hands, the professional landscaper can often be found inside tapping his fingers on the keyboard, waiting for his gardening blog to load.
His home outside Clyde, N.C., lies past the end of the broadband line, so the quality of his blogging hinges on a series of satellites suspended hundreds of miles above his humble cabin in the woods.
Relying on the satellites often makes blogging more difficult than it should be, Carrie said. His frustration is shared by many who live in the state’s rural regions.
He’s given up on using the Internet for much other than loading text and small photos. Video and multimedia elements aren’t an option.
“I’m not able to literally join in the conversation that people are having about these things like the ‘Daily Show’ or clips from CNN, because I can’t watch them with my Internet speed,” he said. “I’m not the type of person who would say something about something I haven’t seen. It does put me at an disadvantage in terms of being connected and having conversations with other people online.”
In the wake of the Internet’s 50th birthday, some wonder if the egalitarian principles it was founded on are being sustained, said Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and Fusion-io chief scientist.
“I’m very worried about the rather few gatekeepers altering our Internet experience from the egalitarian ideal of equal access to everything,” Wozniak said. “For any person, there are only one or two choices for broadband, and regulation is appropriate in cases of monopolies or oligopolies. Otherwise, it is too easy for them to abuse their monopoly position.”
But a breakthrough for Carrie and the millions of others throughout the United States without broadband may be lurking just around the corner, according to leading telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford.
“We’re entering into an era that can really reshape the conditions under which high-speed Internet access is offered in America,” Crawford said. “It’s a critical time.”
Geography’s grip dictates broadband’s breadth
In the mountains of western North Carolina, broadband access is often a pipe dream for people who count their blessings for half-decent radio reception, electricity that flickers at the slightest provocation and phone lines that weather winter storms most of the time.
The Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit organization for the advancement of rural broadband, is striving to make that dream an affordable reality.
According to Mark West, a member of MAIN’s seven-person board of directors and professor of mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, there is a relatively simple solution: Create wireless access points at the end of the existing wired infrastructure.
“It’s possible to provide a one-to-many service,” he said. “You can install an antenna on a high point in a community at the end of the line, and then equip each house with a small antenna. You can drive, with relatively low cost, access to a large number of households.”
The Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) this year completed a 2,600-mile fiber-based network connecting 82 of North Carolina’s 100 counties at broadband speeds around 100 megabytes per second (mbps). The network was made possible by a combination of private donations and federal grants.
Christened the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), the network links K-12 school systems, private and public higher-education institutions, academic research facilities and hospitals. Like a beltway, data traveling within the network is not charged a toll, allowing, for instance, students in Cherokee County to access Duke University’s massive online research resources for free from across the state.
Reaching resources hosted outside the state, what most people think of as the Web, requires another provider coupled with NCREN.
Slow Internet speeds widen educational gap
After the school bell rings each day, Benny Hendrix, Rutherford County School’s chief operating and technology officer, estimates one-third of students, faculty and staff return home to slower satellite speeds. One of the providers of satellite service in the county, HughesNet, advertises download speeds of 5 mbps in its basic “Connect” package for $39.99 per month. In exchange, Rutherford residents acquire speeds only 5 percent as powerful as the district’s network.
Through a combination of NCREN and Pangaea, a nonprofit Internet Service Provider (ISP), the district’s connection produces download speeds of up to 100 mbps, according to Hendrix.
Service in more remote areas, Hendrix said, may lag even more. To bridge the connectivity gap between school and home, the district provides a laptop for each student in grades 6-12.
Rutherford County School’s teachers are encouraged to post assignments, quizzes and tests on Blackboard, an online educational portal. But after the bus drops many students off at home at the end of the day, they enter a world where Blackboard might as well not exist.
“To go from very high speeds at school to home where some students may struggle to load a basic Web page is difficult,” Hendrix said. “We’re trying to compensate for that by allowing students to stay before or after school to download assignments when they can.”
The district is not alone. Four counties to the west, 14 to 20 percent of the families of Clay County Schools can’t receive broadband at home, said Andy Gibson, technology director for the school district. Like Rutherford County, the district has a high-speed Internet connection. Bandwidth is split between NCREN and Blue Ridge Communications, a smaller ISP.
Compared to Rutherford County, far fewer Clay County students go home to slow or non-existent Internet. But that’s not exactly comforting for the one-in-five minority who does, Gibson said.
“The good news is we have a lot of our kids on broadband at home,” he said. “The bad news is that the ones who aren’t going to get it are at a significant educational disadvantage. Satellite, these other options, they just don’t compare to truly high-speed options.”
Gibson’s district opens earlier and closes later for the benefit of the minority of students who often can’t complete homework when and where it’s supposed to be done: at home.
The district was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina aiming to advance the social welfare of state residents. The grant supports a one-to-one initiative to equip each student and teacher with a wireless device.
MCNC’s offer is on the table
NCREN’s outer edges only stretch so far, leaving what MCNC President and CEO Joe Freddoso calls the “last mile.” And even within the network, consumers and businesses can’t access NCREN, because the organization has not and will not enter the private sector.
The $750,000 grant covers a fraction of the cost required to extend wired broadband to just a portion of rural homes in the state, said Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden Leaf Foundation.
“NCREN does not in any way provide broadband to every house and every company, everybody who wants it in these rural counties,” he said. “It just provides the interstate highway to get there. By MCNC taking much of the risk out of it, local providers and those who serve individual consumers could lease lines from MCNC and run new lines out into these communities.”
The lines Gerlach refers to are known as dark fiber, or fiber-optic cable unused by the existing network. MCNC offers strands of dark fiber for lease to ISPs at 2 to 5 percent of market value.
Freddoso echoed Gerlach’s interstate highway analogy.
“NCREN is like a highway, an interstate highway,” Freddoso said. “It builds directly into some of these anchoring institutions we have always supported, but it’s never going to build into a neighborhood to give folks broadband. It’s going to take that last wired investment to build off this network to take true advantage of what we’ve done.”
But the largest ISPs in North Carolina have yet to take MCNC up on its offer. Time Warner Cable hasn’t strayed outside its existing wired infrastructure. Though AT&T was selected by MCNC last April to design and deploy two NCREN access sites in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., the points didn’t affect private consumers.
Majority of ISPs shun the last mile
Even with state and federal funds and MCNC’s discounted leasing of portions of NCREN, most ISPs in the state have not deemed rural broadband financially feasible, West said. As of publication, MCNC has completed only six network deals with regional providers and none with larger national ones.
That may not be changing anytime soon.
Since 2010, AT&T has invested $1.75 billion across North Carolina in its wireless and wireline networks. AT&T offers wireless Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology at 4G speeds to 22 markets statewide. One such market in Sanford, N.C., boasts download speeds up to 10 mbps.
“Our vast network across North Carolina includes some very rural markets,” said Josh Gelinas, AT&T senior public relations manager. “Increasingly, our customer base is accessing the Internet via mobile broadband, and in providing mobile coverage it’s actually going to some places where there may be, in some cases, no current broadband provider.”
The treacherous terrain of western North Carolina – the mountains, the rivers, the valleys – often makes wireless Internet a more attractive and cheaper option for ISPs, Gerlach said.
“One of the challenges of creating the infrastructure in rural North Carolina is the sparse population, troubling financially for any private provider,” he said. “With the geography the way it is, it’s difficult to serve these areas for broadband, because there are just not enough people, and it’s expensive just to reach them. It’s not easy to justify the cost if you’re a private sector.”
For reasons undisclosed, AT&T has no plans in the works to expand its wired Internet service outside its existing wired infrastructure, according to Gelinas. AT&T will instead continue improving existing lines by investing in fiber-optic technology in established markets.
“As far as expanding the last mile, I’m not aware of any plans right now,” Gelinas said. “Our expansions where we’re going to go are where customers are demanding the service, where there is a profit to be made. In larger markets, we know that we’ll get a return on our investment.”
The cost hidden inside the wires
Without much competition among providers to choose from, the average rural North Carolinian’s voice can only ring so loud in the marketplace, said Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science at Elon University and assistant director of the Elon University Poll.
“The interests of the big power players dominate,” he said. “Those who stand the most to gain and the most to lose are probably not you or me.”
Until wired broadband decreases in cost, major ISPs will continue to dominate the market and largely eclipse regional providers and prevent newcomers, according to Husser.
“Anything that increases the cost of doing business will discourage startup companies,” he said. “Anytime you privilege larger companies over smaller companies fewer ideas can emerge because it decreases competition. If there were tons of competition and thousands of firms competing at a major level in the Internet industry, you probably wouldn’t see this occur.”
As the industry stands, startup companies don’t need thousands of dollars or even millions to connect rural areas through wired infrastructure. They need billions, said Colin Collins, executive director of Rural Broadband Connect, a nonprofit in the process of connecting 26 rural counties to broadband across the triangle of Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.
“In our part of the world we have 2.6 households per square mile, and there is no way you can make any kind of a financial business plan that will support the expense to get fiber to those 2.6 households,” Collins said. “Even if you did, the cost which you would be asking consumers to shoulder in rural areas, some of the most impoverished areas in the country, very few people are going to be able to pay the $150-200 it would take for broadband connectivity.”
While some have suggested high-speed Internet access for all should be a moral imperative for ISPs, Gerlach disagreed.
“I understand that private sector companies exist to benefit the shareholder,” he said. “I think what we have done with our investment here in MCNC is reduce the risk to private sector companies to provide access to these last miles.”
Situational pity has never been the goal, Collins said.
“I’m a capitalist from beginning to end,” he said. “We’re not looking for a handout. We’re looking to work through nonprofits and government grants to distribute broadband that isn’t so capital-intensive. If people aren’t willing to work to help themselves, why should they benefit from high-speed Internet?”
The future of rural broadband connectivity
The average person, Freddoso said, doesn’t consider broadband access a critical part of educational literacy in the same way as school textbooks or a library card. That may explain why popular opinion seems to take little issue with light regulation of the Internet compared to acceptance of heavily-regulated “necessities” like water and electricity.
In the event of the continued absence of regulation forcing ISPs to expand broadband access, West’s gaze is locked on nonprofits as the sole savior of rural broadband.
“The future of the Internet in North Carolina under the status quo is that populous areas will be well served by commercial entities, and that poor and lonely rural places will continue to fall behind, and they’re certainly already behind,” West said. “Poor and lonely places will only be served if nonprofits secure the funding and step up and do it. The rich always have friends, and the poor and lonely seldom have advocates.”
Though nonprofits may be rural broadband’s last hope in a bleak landscape, MCNC and its peers can’t do it by themselves. Private ISPs are going to have to play a role, according to Freddoso.
“We will never play in the commercial market,” Freddoso said. “We won’t service homes and businesses, but we will build as close as we can. The rest is up to ISPs. I think what’s happening is that the market’s finding its own and regulation is never going to keep up with it. Let’s make a good amount of fiber available to a whole bunch of different business models that can get you access to the Internet, and the market will flesh out the winners and losers.”
As public awareness of its informational necessity increases with time, Freddoso said, the future of rural broadband is only going to get brighter.
“We’re just now moving into a phase where people think about broadband as a critical utility,” he said. “When you think about other infrastructure we deem critical, there’s either a strong public-private relationship, heavy government regulation or the public has built the infrastructure themselves. We at MCNC are at the forefront of what could be emerging as a new model, where a nonprofit shares a pretty significant share of the infrastructure and splits the playing field with private companies.”