A neighborhood in the southwest part of the county spent most of October and December without internet or landline phone service, owing to back-to-back, weeks-long broadband outages.
Those outages left at least five households along Charlie Cooper Road offline for a combined 51 days within that span of time.
The neighborhood where the outages took place is located in a rural part of the county, between Siler City and Liberty, and runs along the Rocky River to the west and U.S. 421 to the east. Neighbors affected were customers of Brightspeed — formerly known as CenturyLink — which serves just under half of Chatham County’s population, according to the FCC’s national broadband map.
The first outage was a result of strong winds from Hurricane Ian, which knocked out broadband and electricity. The second one, just a month later, came out of the blue when a tractor trailer snagged allegedly low-hanging power lines.
Since cell service is also limited in the neighborhood, residents could not rely on 5G to access the internet during the extensive outages.
“You just feel cut off from the world,” Tammy Kidd, a resident affected by the outages, said. “Communication is everything nowadays, and it hit at a time where people wanted to be on the internet, that might have to order gifts for Christmas, because a lot of people like myself don’t like to be out with all the COVID and flu and everything.”
The neighbors told the News + Record they couldn’t understand why the Wi-Fi connection hadn’t been fixed sooner, but they did their best to cope without it.
“As one friend put it, internet is now as essential to life as clean water,” Joanna Hedrick, another resident, said. “Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but we sure do depend on it in a way that I never would’ve imagined when I was younger.”
Residents say the other service providers in their area are too expensive to be feasible. Some are planning to switch in the future, but others say they’re stuck with Brightspeed.
“I think we just need more options,” Hedrick said.
The outages come at a time when rural communities across the county, state and country have reckoned with a lack of internet access in an increasingly digital age that was made even more so by the pandemic. They also provide a window into the landscape of broadband infrastructure in Chatham County, where Brightspeed customers elsewhere in the county have also reported record-long internet outages in recent months.
This problem of spotty internet is not unique to Brightspeed or to Chatham County, but a long outage such as this one “seems completely unacceptable, and very rare,” according to Burney Waring, president of Innovate Chatham, a non-profit group that seeks to help technology flourish in the county.
“This is a very bad, acute problem,” he said about the outage.
Across the county, 16% of people said they did not have quality internet service, according to a recent county assessment.
Rep. Robert Reives II, who represents District 54 in the N.C. House of Representatives, sponsored a recent grant program to expand broadband infrastructure in underserved communities. He said the county has “huge coverage problems.”
“I live on the western side of the county, and it’s more dire on the west side of the county, because we’re so spread out,” Reives, a Goldston resident, said. “When you’re not in a densely populated area here in the state period, then you really have a hard time getting true high-speed broadband.
“But unfortunately, this is not unique to Chatham,” he said. “It’s a problem that we have in a lot of our rural areas — and 80% of the state is still rural.”
Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne said the county is “aware of service outages” and it “shares the concerns of many residents who have limited or no access to broadband service.”
“There are still parts of the county that are unserved or underserved with residents and businesses struggling to compete in the digital economy,” LaMontagne added. “The pandemic underscored the critical need for high-speed internet connectivity to close this gap.”
The first outage on Charlie Cooper Road began on Oct. 1. It took just under three weeks for Brightspeed to restore the internet, residents there said, during which time they were told that it would only be “a few days” before they could access a Wi-Fi connection again. Meanwhile, residents said Duke Energy restored power in just a day or two.
Flash forward to Nov. 28, when a tractor trailer hits the power lines, taking them down across the road. The same pattern followed, according to residents: while the power is fixed right away, Brightspeed takes one day short of a full month to return residents to full service. It’s two days after Christmas before they’re finally able to load webpages again or access email.
“Duke repaired their lines immediately, but Brightspeed, who was at fault for the power poles being downed, was not there to repair their lines,” Hedrick said. She believes the low-hung wires from the previous repair job contributed to the accident, which also took down the power pole.
“I could understand a week maybe, but 20 days and a month, two recent outages for both our landlines and our internet — that’s really unacceptable,” Kidd said.
Hedrick said one of the workers who fixed the fallen line during the second outage told her he was a contractor for Brightspeed and the crew that came out there to fix the lines was from Henderson, roughly 90 miles away.
“We treat all outages as a top priority and in some cases utilize temporary cabling to restore service until permanent fixes can be implemented,” Gene Rodriguez Miller, the public relations director for Brightspeed, told the News + Record. When asked specifically about the three- and four weeks-long outages on Charlie Cooper Road, Miller said in an email the company did not “have all the details about the outages you have mentioned.”
Miller then referenced, unprompted, a separate outage that occurred 25 miles away.
“Our research shows we did experience an outage on Oct. 11 at 6 Mount View Church Road in Moncure,” Miller said. “In that case, we identified the issue and engaged our line extension contractor, a vendor partner, to resolve it. However, there were challenges to restoring service immediately, including weather related delays across the state and material shortages.
“Additionally, we have had cable theft in the county that in some cases has been extensive,” Miller said. “These challenges contributed to the prolonged outage of eight days. This is much longer than we or our customers would have expected.”
At least one resident living in the same neighborhood as 6 Mount View Church Road had previously confirmed an outage had taken place around that time period. However, the resident, Elizabeth Morton, said the outage lasted much longer than eight days. Morton, who lives about two miles down the highway from the address given, said her outage began on Oct. 13 and lasted until Oct. 27.
Customer service issues
On top of having no internet for weeks on end, Charlie Cooper Road residents also struggled to get Brightspeed customer service representatives to take them seriously — or engage with them at all. They reported being misunderstood, misled or downright ignored by customer service representatives during phone calls.
On repeated occasions, residents were told a technician would be able to help, despite explaining a line crew was needed, not a technician, to fix the fallen wires.
“We could not talk to anybody,” Hedrick said. “We were talking to these people following a script. It would always start with, ‘Let us check your modem,’ and we’d be like ‘No, you are not hearing us, the problem is out at the road.’”
Kidd said she was once told by customer service, after requesting to speak with a supervisor, that one would contact her.
“Well, I never got a call,” she said. “I gave him my cell phone number, and I never got a call back from upper management to address any concerns. You only get to speak to the customer service reps that give you the runaround ... Nobody wants to address the problem.”
On the night of Nov. 28, during the second outage, Hedrick said she called Brightspeed customer service and got a “lead representative who assured me that our internet would be restored much more promptly than post-Hurricane Ian,” since the storm had caused so many other outages.
“Well, obviously that was not accurate because it took even longer (one day short of a full month) to restore phone and internet this second time around,” Hedrick said.
Residents also reported a language barrier. Some customer service representatives they interacted with had strong foreign accents that even Hedrick, who teaches English as a foreign language, said she struggled to understand.
“We take customer outages very seriously and our standard is to engage immediately and work until service is restored,” Miller said.
“When we launched Brightspeed in October 2022, we knew that some customers expected everything to change overnight — and that is fair from a customer standpoint,” she added. “However, we took on the same operations and network that existed previously, and it will take time to transform the entire experience for our customers, but we are committed.”
Since taking over for CenturyLink last year, Brightspeed has recently increased customer service staff “by more than 35% and are actively expanding our service and repair teams,” Miller said. She told the News + Record they company has since hired 35 new technicians, including four in Chatham County, as well as added about 200 representatives to its support call center team.
Hedrick said she would like to change service providers but she can’t afford the other options.
“It was all more expensive,” Hedrick said. “I’m a public school teacher, I’m on a budget, and I look at my budget, and I’m like, ‘CenturyLink, while we had it, was doable.’ These others, it’s doubling what I was paying. And so I just wish we had something at that price, one other option, because after this experience, honestly, I just would like to give my business to another company. But I feel stuck.”
More outages, health concerns
Other Brightspeed customers elsewhere in the county have reported similar long-term outages in recent months and corresponding customer service issues.
“We have had just a harrowing event with them,” said Tracy Hanner, a Brightspeed customer in western Chatham County whose broadband was out for almost two weeks during the holidays.
After his internet went out on Dec. 23, Hanner said he was initially told the problem would be fixed within a day or two, but was later informed he would need to wait another two weeks to have the Wi-Fi connection fixed. He tried unsuccessfully to reach a supervisor during that time. Finally, he managed to get a hold of a representative who — after two hours of discussion — was able to get his ticket moved from Jan. 11 to Jan. 3.
“I went through so much just to communicate with them through their chat line and online and talking to different people, but you never get really a good answer from them,” Hanner said. He added: “It always comes down to whether your community is large enough or important enough for somebody to say, ‘Well, yeah, we can help that area.’”
While some residents described such outages as inconvenient, others said not having access to a landline or internet connection posed a risk to the health and safety of their families.
“And when I’m at work, I told [Brightspeed], it was a safety issue,” Kidd said. “Because, [with] no home landline, my mom couldn’t call if anything was going on. And at her age, I can’t get her to learn to use a cell phone. And then I had recently pulled my son out of high school for some bullying issues, and he was unable to have internet access to do with homeschool. It really impacted us.”
Morton was especially troubled by the lack of internet because she had to go out of her way to travel to accessible places around the county that had decent internet service available to the public. This was something she had to do to monitor and update her daughter’s medical charts, she said.
“I have a chart that I have to monitor my daughter’s health on every day — it’s communicating with her team medical staff — and you know, I can’t have it down that long,” Morton said. “And I myself am chaired, so it’s very hard.”
Morton said she expressed her concerns to the county manager, who connected her with a Brightspeed executive. The executive sent her a medical priority form that could be used to expedite service restoration for customers with health concerns.
“He sent me a medical form that I didn’t know that existed,” Morton said. She received the form on Oct. 26, a day before her service was expected to be restored.
There are laws in place in North Carolina preventing county and municipal governments from putting up new broadband infrastructure. Advocates for digital inclusion say this legislation, which was put in place in 2011, has made it more difficult to provide service to rural areas.
Waring said the government does not regulate internet service providers like they do with electric utilities, and “they’re being given an area in which they don’t have any competition in the future.” This makes it harder for companies to justify spending on broadband infrastructure.
“I’m still a very libertarian guy, but I think this is one of the areas that it’s going too far in a direction now, it has to be solved by the government,” Waring said.
This means the private sector has effectively been made to cover this essential service, said Reives. He thinks it’s “not realistic” for private companies to be tasked with providing internet service and infrastructure in rural areas, where houses are more spread out and less economically-desirable targets for these companies.
“That’s not the type of dense population that’s gonna encourage somebody to spend billions of dollars to put up fiber that you need for high speed internet,” he said.
Reives added: “The government’s got to get out of the way and let people, and let towns, municipalities invest money, because I can promise you a lot of these rural counties and municipalities would love the opportunity to take money that they’re spending on other ways to market themselves and put that money into infrastructure for high speed internet, which then makes where they live much more appealing to people who want to come there.”
LaMontagne said the county “remains committed to doing what it can to expand broadband coverage in the community” while navigating the barriers surrounding public broadband infrastructure.
Residents say they would like to see the laws change or another solution implemented by the government.
“I would suggest or recommend that local governments be given the opportunity to provide for areas lacking in multiple non-satellite, non-fiber optic service,” Hanner said. “We are left to defend for ourselves. They expect us to pay on time but lack the courtesy to provide adequate service.”
A prior attempt at legislation that would allow counties and municipalities to build and lease new broadband infrastructure stalled in 2019. Reives said there has not been momentum to move forward on the issue at this time.
“I have not seen it from leadership presently,” Reives said. “And that does not mean that there will not be future efforts to be made. But I’ve not seen the will or desire to change that legislation at this time with present leadership.”
Despite these legislative hurdles, Reives said progress is being made to address the digital divide. He pointed to the recent awarding of funds in the GREAT Grant program, which gives private sector broadband providers funds to deploy infrastructure in unserved areas. Chatham County received $4 million in state funding this past August to improve broadband access for more than 1,900 homes.
Waring said residents can also help themselves by looking up their address on the FCC’s National Broadband Map and reporting false information about the service providers available to them. By doing this, it could help make sure they are covered in future broadband funding efforts. He also said Innovate Chatham is sponsoring events to discuss broadband issues.
“At these events we will listen to the challenges people have around the internet and what we should be doing about them,” Waring said. “That information will go into the Chatham Digital Inclusion Plan, which will be used to access grant money coming from the Federal and State government. We will also share several programs that are already available to help with certain internet challenges.”
The next event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, at the N.C. Arts Incubator at 223 N. Chatham Ave. in Siler City. (For tickets, go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/chatham-internet-discussion-tickets-487285914287.)
Brightspeed told the News + Record it has plans to build more than 6,000 new fiber-optic passings in Chatham County in 2023 and more in subsequent years. Fiber-optic internet is much more reliable and speedy than traditional DSL broadband, the technology that uses phone lines to connect to the internet.
Still, residents worry Brightspeed and other companies need more oversight — or at least a track-record of providing quality service — to be trusted with future infrastructure endeavors.
“It should come down to does everybody have accessibility,” Hanner said. “But that’s not the way things work — I know life don’t work like that. You got to stand up for and do something, shout or scream, to get something for your area.”