Easy and affordable access to adequate broadband service was high on the wishlist for Chatham County, and many other rural areas of North Carolina, prior to COVID-19 and well before terms like …
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Easy and affordable access to adequate broadband service was high on the wishlist for Chatham County, and many other rural areas of North Carolina, prior to COVID-19 and well before terms like “social distancing” entered the world’s vocabulary.
COVID’s impact has been crystal clear as the gap between life for the broadband “haves” and “have nots” has grown even wider. Now’s the time to stop wishing; it’s time for the N.C. General Assembly to deliver.
The pandemic has laid bare many egregious quality of life shortcomings we’d previously ignored, pushed to the back burner or wished away. It’s also blown to smithereens any remaining notions that having pockets of rural communities with inadequate broadband access is anywhere near acceptable.
Online learning, working from home and telemedicine — practices which grew exponentially as COVID-19 began to wear us down during 2020 — were easily done for those who already had solid internet connections. But as we’ve written here before, too many households (almost 15%, or about 4,300 homes in Chatham) lack good access. In 2020, this growing, critical need in the state reached the acute stage, “last ditch” stage. It’s been a year some education leaders are already writing off as a year lost because too many students had too little access and were failed by remote learning.
What once was considered a luxury is — if you work or learn from home — an absolute necessity. Counties and municipalities wouldn’t think of allowing builders or developers to put up homes, apartments or public buildings without electricity and plumbing. So why are the providers of broadband services allowed a pass?
For a long time now, political leaders like Robert Reives II of Chatham County have been saying broadband should be considered a utility. It’s a logical next step.
A recent story from the Carolina Journal pointed out the dilemma: Communities have struggled with access to broadband for well over a decade, the report said. And while a private market for broadband has flourished, “connecting that final mile remains unprofitable. Frustrations have some customers turning to government to solve the problem. Cities have tried building and maintaining their own broadband systems and failed, costing taxpayers millions, harming other services and still unable to offer a quality product.”
Money hasn’t solved the problem. A new round of GREAT (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology) program funding, for example, is dispensing $29.8 million in grant money between 11 internet providers across 18 different counties through the N.C. Dept. of Information Technology Broadband Infrastructure Office. Through the grant, some 16,000 households and about 700 businesses in rural North Carolina will receive high-speed internet.
It was needed assistance. But none of that will be coming to Chatham County.
With a new legislative session beginning in Raleigh in just a few days, lawmakers must find the political will in 2021 to solve the problem, address the shortcomings and fix the inadequacies they’ve helped to create. That involves, as the Journal pointed out, streamlining permitting, removing obstacles to building wireless infrastructure on public property, offering consumer subsidies and truly — once and for all — focusing on unserved areas, like those in rural Chatham County.
Meanwhile, local governments need to keep the pressure on.
Chatham’s county government website even devotes time to the issue, calling the situation “not acceptable.”
“We have not given up!” an entry on the website says. “We remain committed to doing what we can to expand broadband coverage in Chatham.”
That commitment has to be matched at the legislative level. We can’t afford another lost year.