High Speed Internet

 

Broadband is another term for bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be sent through a connection to access high-speed Internet. The more bandwidth, the more information a user can send or receive at any given time. Broadband is an integral part of building a 21st century technology infrastructure that supports students, educators, first responders, and businesses.  There are many challenges to delivering high-speed internet to rural communities and there are many solutions and partnerships that have risen to the challenge with innovative ideas, new technology, and creative partnerships.  There's more on the horizon and RGJ plans to work with public and private sector partners to promote business development for small companies that install fiber optic cable.  These small businesses have more than 30 years experience with fiber optic cable installation and would like to be a part of the solution for rural communities. 

 

Problems and Challenges

Traditional dial-up is one of the only options available to many rural Americans. But it’s slow, really slow. Even modern dial-up modems cannot transfer more than 56 kbps. Older and poorly maintained phone lines strangle these speeds even more.  The U.S is at the forefront of the digital revolution, but it still struggles to provide millions of its citizens access to stable wireless connections. Those who live in remote areas have trouble obtaining fast internet speeds because mobile internet providers are unwilling to build expensive infrastructure in sparse areas. Another limiting factor for those in rural areas is the enormous cost of internet plans. A 2014 report from New America found those who live in U.S. cities pay significantly more for slower internet than people in other countries. The U.S. currently ranks 17th globally for average peak internet speeds at 48.8 megabits per second.

 

Solutions and Alternatives

North Carolina is adapting to the changing demands of technology by extending Wi-Fi access to classrooms to support digital learning.  Every K – 12 school in the state has high-speed Internet access, and 98% are served by dedicated fiber.  To complete the recommendations of the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, BIO will develop a plan to provide Internet access to all underserved homes to facilitate student access beyond the schoolhouse.

 

Duplin County

It has been years of waiting but taxpayers in rural Duplin County will soon be saying goodbye to dial up and hello to high-speed internet. While dial up internet seems a distant memory to many of us, up until now it has been a frustrating reality in the homes, schools and businesses in Duplin. An estimated 12,000 residents have been living without internet altogether, according to a survey conducted by the Duplin County Government earlier this year.  These survey results were presented to existing providers who said that the area did not have the population density to justify fiber optic cables.  Susan Myers, co-founder of Eastern Carolinas Broadband says that lack of access to high-speed internet, isn’t just inconvenient, it can impact learning for students. She says the new high-speed internet will help local schools in Duplin County.“Rural areas tend to be the very last to benefit from the development of any new technology,” said Myers.  Last week, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners granted approval for ECB to move forward in building out the “fixed wireless” infrastructure to support wireless internet for the county. Compared to cable or DSL, fixed wireless does not depend on running wire, cable or fiber to each home. Instead it uses radio signals, much like cell phone or TV transmissions, but in a different frequency range.  This allows customers who are spread out geographically to access the signal, using a small antenna at the home capable of handling music, videos and large downloads. Unlike satellite internet, fixed wireless only has to travel a short distance between the customer and the transmitting tower.  ECB’s future plans are to partner with more towns and counties across the east to mount antennas on water towers to serve the surrounding areas. “Our rural community cannot wait five years for high speed internet. We need it now. We started Eastern Carolina Broadband so that our schoolchildren and farmers do not fall behind,” said Myers, who lives and works in rural Duplin County.  Eastern Carolina Broadband will begin offering high speed internet services in Duplin County beginning January 1, 2018. High speed fixed wireless internet will start at $59 dollars per month. That price includes 25 mb down with no caps on data.

 

South Carolina Broadband Initiatives

As the State Broadband Initiative, Connect South Carolina is leading the effort to increase high-speed Internet access, adoption and use to ensure South Carolina’s competitiveness in the connected global economy of the twenty-first century. Connect South Carolina is a public-private partnership designated by the state to work with all broadband providers to create South Carolina’s first interactive map of broadband coverage. This work serves as a foundation for addressing remaining service gaps while also engaging state, regional and local leaders in workforce development activities designed to bridge South Carolina’s digital divide.

QUICK STATS

  • In total there are 109 internet providers in South Carolina.
  • There are 459,000 people in South Carolina without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds.
  • There are 728,000 people in South Carolina that have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch.
  • Another 182,000 people in South Carolina don't have any wired internet providers available where they live.

Connect South Carolina and Greenwood Partnership Alliance hosted an open house at Piedmont CMG’s Abbeville plant on Monday, April 8 with business and community leaders, government representatives, and media to help celebrate the success of the recent improvement to its broadband connectivity by offering a tour of the facility and sharing its story.  “Piedmont CMG depends heavily on consistent broadband connectivity with symmetry … today’s announcement of the coming fiber optic lines to both our Greenwood and Abbeville plants mark a major step forward in productivity and improved abilities to service both our external and internal customers,” said Tony Byrum, Piedmont CMG new product manager. “Piedmont CMG is grateful to Connect South Carolina and the Greenwood Partnership Alliance for their important role in this endeavor.”  This past January, leaders from Greenwood County enrolled their community in the innovative Connected program through Connect South Carolina to boost the local economy and quality of life for residents through increased access, adoption, and use of high-speed Internet. Representatives from Piedmont CMG, a manufacturer for the medical analytical and device industry, were at a Connected meeting after reaching the peak of frustration with their own connectivity needs.  Two managers of the current broadband service providers in Abbeville and Greenwood counties were introduced to Piedmont CMG’s management at the meeting, and that introduction set into motion events that ended a multi-year ordeal of inconsistent broadband connectivity.  The result of the various interactions between the various state agencies, local business leaders, and Piedmont CMG led to the signing of a construction contract with Piedmont Rural Telephone to bring fiber optics to both Piedmont’s Abbeville and Greenwood facilities, and the improved speed of fiber optics will position Piedmont CMG to more efficiently support its national and international customers.  “The mission of Connect South Carolina is to promote jobs and increase economic development through connectivity to broadband,” said Connect South Carolina Community Tech Advisor Heather Jones. “The community engagement process in Greenwood County uncovered a need and we were just delighted to be part of the solution.”  “We are pleased to see Piedmont CMG getting help resolving an ongoing connectivity issue. This is another example of how the public and private sectors come together as a team to resolve issues that affect one of our employers. It is not always about new investment and new jobs,” said Mark Warner, CEO of Greenwood Partnership Alliance. “Piedmont CMG now has a better understanding of how much their location in South Carolina means to everyone. Thanks should go to the folks with Connect South Carolina, the South Carolina Department of Commerce, the Greenwood Partnership Alliance, the Abbeville County Development Board, and Piedmont Rural Telephone for some outstanding teamwork.”  Posted by Connected Nation, Ware Shoals, SC, April 10, 2013

 

Oconee County, South Carolina

Most residents and businesses in Oconee County, South Carolina, used dial-up connections when county officials applied for stimulus funding in 2010; there were still people in the county with no Internet access at all. A few had DSL connections, but even county facilities struggled with antiquated infrastructure. After an AT&T attack upended their plan to offer retail services, they pressed on and improved connectivity in the rural community. Powerful incumbent forces and a bad state law, however, eventually led this community to choose privatization.  We spoke with Kim Wilbanks, who served as Project Manager for Oconee FOCUS, the 240-mile fiber optic publicly owned network. She worked with a small team of people that applied for funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to obtain funds for the project. Wilbanks and former FOCUS Director Mike Powell were instrumental in establishing the infrastructure. The Wilbanks family used dial-up Internet access until 2010 when AT&T finally installed DSL on her street on the edge of town in the mostly rural county.  

Oconee County’s rural environment with a sparse population, sluggish economic growth, and high number of unserved and underserved premises, was the type of region where stimulus funds helped jump start projects. When the county received a grant in the second round of awards in the summer of 2010 for $9.6 million, officials at the county planned to connect community anchor institutions and municipal and county facilities first. They planned to later expand and bring businesses and residents better Internet access. The county matched the federal grant with $4.7 million to deploy the $14.3 million fiber optic infrastructure. After the RFP process, they were able to start construction in early 2011. By the end of 2013, they had finished construction; by 2014 six providers offered services via the publicly owned fiber infrastructure in the northwest corner of the state. It was obvious that the community was eager to connect to high-quality Internet access.

Oconee County accepted a proposal from OneTone Telecom that Kim describes as a “lease to buy.” In keeping with one of the stipulations that accompany federally funded Internet infrastructure, the county must retain ownership of the asset for its “useful life.” In August 2016, Oconee County entered into an agreement with OneTone to exclusively lease the network to the provider for 20 years at the end of which time OneTone would purchase the infrastructure. Over the course of the lease, OneTone will pay $6.3 million to Oconee County.  As part of the agreement, OneTone will continue to bring 10 Gbps wide area network (WAN) connectivity to the school district so connections between facilities are fast and reliable. The schools will also retain their 1 Gbps Internet access; there will be no increase rates during the 20-year term unless the school requests an increase in services.County facilities and approximately 70 community anchor institutions will continue to receive symmetrical connections at 100 Mbps and 30 Mbps respectively for $75 per month per location. Fire stations will receive Internet access and 100 Mbps symmetrical connectivity at no cost.  OneTone has also agreed to invest in expansion and marketing to make residents and businesses aware that Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) is available. They’ve also agreed to invest in fiber deployment and additional infrastructure to attract carrier-to-carrier arrangements, redundancy, and to attract large institutions such as hospitals and colleges. They’ve also agreed to a right of first refusal for the county that includes both the existing fiber assets and new infrastructure that they will deploy during the course of the lease.  State laws impinging on local authority and championed by incumbent AT&T severely limited Oconee County’s opportunities. In Utah, iProvo and UTOPIA have contended with similar restrictions. UTOPIA has flourished after a few difficult years, but Provo also chose to privatize their infrastructure with a sale to Google Fiber. These state laws that preserve an anti-competitive environment for AT&T, Comcast, and other national incumbents handicap efforts to raise up local communities. The harmful H3508 required county officials to reorganize their plans but they still brought high-quality connections to unserved and underserved areas of the county. If they had not been hampered by lobbyists’ endeavors, Oconee County could have achieved even more.  While poor laws in their state may be pushing them to privatize, Wilbanks, Powell, and Oconee County have created a foundation for better connectivity in the rural community. After working on the FOCUS project, Wilbanks learned how critical her role was in improving life in Oconee County.  Posted by Lisa Gonzalez, Community Networks, on January 2, 2018

 

AT&T

AT&T is planning to use cell towers across South Carolina to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas where internet access is slow to nonexistent.  The telecom giant says it’s in the process of installing antennas capable of connecting thousands of people in sparsely populated corners of the state. Roughly 12,000 homes and businesses will have access to the new service by the end of the year.  The work covers some 20 counties in South Carolina under a Federal Communications Commission initiative to boost access in underserved areas. Company spokesman Daniel Hayes declined to say which areas would get service.  AT&T is receiving $9.7 million a year from the government in return for connecting more than 30,000 customers here by the end of 2020. Nationwide, the company is getting almost $428 million a year to extend access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says.  The federal subsidy, which was announced in 2015, is meant to boost investment in high-cost areas, where long distances and low density typically keep telecom companies away. In South Carolina, 38 percent of people in rural areas — nearly 605,000 in all — don’t have access to high-speed internet, FCC records show, compared with 8 percent in urban areas.The subsidized areas lack download speeds above 3 megabits per second, which is roughly equivalent to a DSL connection. Under the FCC program, they’ll be guaranteed a minimum of 10 Mbps, which is still slow by modern standards. Hayes said AT&T’s early tests have “easily” met that mark.  Hayes says the service will cost $60 a month, plus a one-time installation fee of $99, but discounts will be available for customers who buy other AT&T services.  AT&T’s plan is to rely on its existing infrastructure and avoid laying new fiber by beaming signals from the cell towers it already has, a model known as fixed wireless. “Because of the wireless aspect of it and the greater ability to deliver that last-mile connection, it does help to overcome any obstacles that may be in the cost equation,” Hayes said. “This initial build, with it being infrastructure that we have in place with these towers, that comes from years of investment.”  The idea is similar to satellite internet, with a receiver the size of a laptop installed outside. Unlike a signal beamed down from space, however, fixed wireless customers will need a clear line of sight to a tower, and they’ll need to be within a few miles.  Fixed wireless has emerged as a promising solution to the problem of the U.S.’s disconnected communities since it’s far cheaper than laying fiber cables that reach every home in America.  The model is common in Western states, but it hasn’t been tried extensively in the Palmetto State. South Carolina has the third-lowest fixed wireless coverage in the country, ahead of only New Jersey and Hawaii, according to the research firm BroadbandNow.  But it’s likely to spread, said Jim Stritzinger, the executive director of Connect South Carolina, which studies the state’s broadband networks. Fixed wireless transmitters have become more effective and cheaper to install in recent years, making it a more practical solution.  “It hasn’t been the technology of choice in South Carolina until recently,” Stritzinger said. “The cost of it has come way down, and the capability has gone way up. The economics of fixed wireless have really changed in the last couple of years.”  Thad Moore, Post and Courier, July 24, 2017

 

Community Services for the Deaf

Broadband’s ability to expand educational and employment opportunities is especially meaningful for Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, a community that faces unique challenges in education and that suffers from a rate of unemployment much higher than the national average. Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. (CSD) intends to expand broadband adoption among people who are deaf and hard of hearing and provide them with online tools to more fully participate in the digital economy. The project proposes to employ a combination of discounted broadband service and specialized computers, technology training from an online state-of-the art support center customized to the community’s needs, public access to videophones at anchor institutions from coast to coast, and a nationwide outreach initiative. Thousands will gain online access to all the Internet has to offer, including sign language interpreters, captioned video services, and other content and functionalities designed especially to advance their educational, employment, and healthcare interests.

 

Microsoft

Microsoft wants to connect more than 20 million people who have no or limited internet access in just five years, with a hard deadline of July 4, 2022. The company will spend the first year of its project deploying a network in 12 states, including Texas, New York, Michigan, and Virginia. For the other 20 percent who do not have access to broadband, Microsoft will use more traditional methods like satellite coverage and LTE fixed wireless (towers and ground stations).  With its white space network, Microsoft is hoping it can raise the wireless standards in areas forgotten by service providers. But it will have to overcome several challenges before it can go forward with the project. First, there are very few devices that are compatible with white space frequencies, and those that do exist are expensive. Additionally, TV broadcasters believe the network could interfere with their programming. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters already filed a complaint with the FCC against allowing Microsoft to use the spectrum.

 

RGJ Partnerships

RGJ aims to work with public and private sector partners to promote business development for small companies that install fiber optic cable.  These small businesses may offer affordable solutions that will provide high speed internet to more rural communities.