NC Rural Center John Coggin photo

John Coggin, director of advocacy at the North Carolina Rural Center,  shares his vision for a more prosperous rural North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on the rural policy luncheon.

Representatives with the North Carolina Rural Center traveled to Morganton in May to share how they are advocating for a better Burke County and improvements in rural areas across the state.

John Coggin, director of advocacy at the NC Rural Center, and Miles Kirksey, Morganton native and engagement coordinator with the center, spoke to a group of local leaders in a variety of fields and shared their vision for more developed and prosperous rural communities, based on exhaustive research.

“Our mission is to develop, promote and implement sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life in rural North Carolina,” Kirksey said. “We have a special focus on counties and individuals from low- to moderate-incomes and communities with limited resources.”

Kirksey said 80 of the 100 counties in the state are classified as rural. The NC Rural Center identified three issues to focus on after going on a listening tour that lasted a whole year, covered 8,457 miles within the state and involved about 1,600 people. Participants said the issues most pressing to them were:

» Expanding accessible, affordable high-speed broadband

» Stabilizing and transforming rural health

» Investing in stronger entrepreneurship and small business development systems

Broadband

Coggin said expanding broadband in rural areas comes down to availability, affordability and adoption.

Access to high-speed internet equals a connection that processes data at least 25 megabits per second, or mbps.

North Carolina has 93 percent high-speed internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, but Coggin said that statistic is misleading.

“The FCC defines access on the census block level, which means that if one house in your census block has access at that speed, the entire census block is counted as having access,” he said. “Also, who reports those speeds? The internet service providers do.”

North Carolina officials are trying to collect more accurate data on high-speed internet access by having people visit www.ncbroadband.gov/map and take an internet speed test.

Cost also is a major barrier to access, with 43 percent of people in North Carolina without an internet connection citing that as the reason for not signing up for the service.

“Since we have decided as a society not to classify broadband service as a public utility, like we did with electricity, water and sewer, it comes down to creating competition in a marketplace,” Coggin said. “That’s a tough proposition in a lot of last-mile areas. What the state should be doing is creating a level playing field such that some of the smaller providers, scrappy entrepreneurs and cooperatives that want to get out to the last mile, and it is in their business model, have a chance and spark competition, so that even if there is one provider, we get an incentive for more and more providers to be out there, which will help bring the costs down in our rural areas.”

Keith Conover, a technical analyst with the Broadband Infrastructure Office at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, who attended the luncheon, elaborated on the economics affecting broadband access.

“It's important to understand that broadband is a non-regulated, market-based business, which means they’re at the bequest of their stakeholders,” Conover said. “Understanding the environment is important to start the process of doing anything when it comes to broadband. There’s no regulation that requires a specific price per customer.”

The center is pushing for the North Carolina General Assembly to expand the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology program (HB398 and SB627), a $10 million grant fund pilot program.

“It’s a gold standard in state policy that provides grants to internet service providers who commit to reaching unserved areas of the state,” Coggin said. “If they build out that infrastructure, the state will provide a match to help them get to those areas, and then they have to promise to serve them at a certain speed threshold for a certain amount of time.”

The latest NC House budget included additional funding for the GREAT program.

“The plan right now is to invest $150 million over 10 years in this program,” Coggin said. “We think that is the right amount of money. We think we need to distribute that money in half the time. If it takes 10 years to get out that $150 million, we’re leaving a lot of communities in the dust. We think there’s a demand for quality projects that can be done in five (years). Rather than $15 million a year, we’d love to see $30 million a year. We’d also like to see those speed thresholds increased.”

He noted that although high-speed internet access is defined at 25 mbps, ISPs are only required by law to provide 10.1 mbps.

“If you don’t mandate that 25.3 speed, you’re not going to be putting in technology that can scale with the future,” Coggin said. “If we’re using state money to install outdated technology, that isn’t a good use of our public funds.”

Other solutions the center suggested include encouraging public-private partnerships, funding digital literacy programs, providing technology subsidies for underserved areas and low-income households, changing the way the state ranks counties with the most needs and removing the limitation on counties that have received high-speed broadband grants in the past from receiving new grants.

Conover said government officials need to be proactive in communicating with ISPs to get them to apply for grants.

“What we can do is let the providers know about programs like this, and say, ‘If you need help from us for your application on demographics, information about our county, things that could help that application,’ because all of this, whether it’s federal or state (grants), is voluntary,” Conover said. “Our role is to make sure they understand it’s available, because in many cases, these private providers are chasing their market strategy and don’t have people that are filling out grant applications, especially the big ones.”

He explained how laws limiting access to grant funds are creating a barrier to high-speed broadband service.

“We have Connect America funds, which are federal funds that have been used to upgrade many of the copper incumbent networks, and it’s done under the guise of this 10.1 (mbps),” Conover said. “When you’re dealing with copper, because of the constraints of the distance, the further distance you are from the fiber or the node, the less speed you’re going to get.”

The state has made one move to improve internet access by implementing a “dig once” policy.

“If there are infrastructure projects that are being built, say new roads, it’s a lot easier and cheaper and a better use of state funds to go ahead and build the conduit, even if you don’t have fiber (optic cables) at the moment, but to build in that infrastructure project the possibility of getting fiber into a community,” Coggin said.

He asked attendees to speak with their state representatives about passing legislation that will increase broadband access to rural areas.

“It’s going to take all of us working together to get broadband where it isn’t,” Coggin said.

For more information on the NC Rural Center, visit www.ncruralcenter.org or contact 919-250-4314.

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at tgercken@morganton.com.

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