A lack of high-speed internet has left rural communities like Warren County behind, but an influx of funding from the Biden administration means help is on the way.
The Warren County Recreation Complex is the picture of community.
This 65-acre park near the Virginia border has baseball and softball fields, basketball and tennis courts, plenty of space for football or soccer, and a paved walking track that winds through a small grove of trees and around open fields of green.
Every weekend, each spot is filled with people.
The complex is also one of the only places in the county with free Wi-Fi. That’s a big deal in Warren County, where nearly three in 10 households lack access to high-speed internet.
County officials installed the Wi-Fi in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic cleared all the public spaces and concentrated our lives online. Even when the baseball fields lay empty, adults came to the park to check their email, apply for jobs and help their children muddle through online classes. Residents could tap into free Wi-Fi at the library or the Armory Civic Center, too, but there were few other options.
The pandemic destroyed and disrupted lives across the world, but it also highlighted the nation’s vast digital divide.
‘A Real Serious Issue’
In North Carolina, 1.1 million households lack high-speed internet, the key ingredient to the modern economy, education and healthcare. Most of them are in rural areas like Warren County, where internet is primarily available through old DSL cables.
“When we went into remote learning and remote working opportunities, schools and businesses had to figure out how to do it,” Vincent Jones, the Warren County Manager, said in an interview last month.
“That was a real serious issue, everybody trying to navigate these old systems.”
The pandemic made the broadband problem worse, but it also accelerated state and federal efforts to do something about it. Congress passed several pieces of legislation backed by the Biden Administration to expand broadband access, a measure that’s long been a priority of Gov. Roy Cooper.
Warren County is just one county. But it stands as a model for both the persistence of the digital divide and the optimism in rural areas that relief is finally on the way.
A Bipartisan Priority in North Carolina
Local officials in North Carolina have done what they can to address the lack of reliable, affordable high-speed internet, but it took a huge federal investment and increased state attention to get things moving.
Cooper made broadband a key part of his election campaign in 2016. He has pledged to spend $2 billion in state and federal funding to not just narrow the digital divide, but close it. The Republican-controlled General Assembly doesn’t agree with Cooper on much, but minus some details, they agree on this.
The Biden administration also included huge outlays for broadband in many of their biggest initiatives, including COVID relief legislation.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, played a large roll in helping to get the laws passed.
The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), for example, designated $25 billion to the states for broadband expansion. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided another $65 billion to connect more Americans to the internet.
North Carolina got $350 million in ARPA funding to expand broadband, all of which has now been allocated through the state’s existing competitive grants program, Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT.
North Carolina is also getting another $1.5 billion via the infrastructure law to put toward expansion, the Biden administration announced in June.
The state has so far approved GREAT grants across more than 90 counties, covering nearly 140,000 households and more than 4,400 businesses. In addition to the $350 million in federal funding, the state has spent another $182 million on the program.
‘A Beautiful Community’
“Everyone should know about Warren County,” County Manager Jones said. “It’s a beautiful community, representative of North Carolina and all its finest points.”
The county covers 429 square miles in the northeastern part of the state and is home to 18,713 people. Lake Gaston is popular with boaters and people with second homes. There’s a community college campus in Warrenton, and several towns have Main Streets familiar to any resident of North Carolina. Interesting shops. Hardware stores and barber shops. Good coffee. Good food. Warren County is also where in 1982 Black residents protested a proposed carcinogen-laced landfill in their community and founded the environmental justice movement.
It is “a community that relies on family and works together,” Jones said. “We’re just like you. You can come visit anytime.”
The county is only an hour’s drive from Raleigh, Jones said, “but you’d never guess it sometimes.”
The lack of broadband makes it hard for residents to live the same digital lives that many in urban areas are accustomed to.
Without reliable internet, it’s harder to apply for a job, register to vote, get a driver’s license, secure a business permit, pay your bills, plop the kids in front of a movie, or read this article.
“We’re a rural community, but people still have those same expectations and needs as people in urban areas,” Jones said.
Most of the county has only “old-school DSL options, meaning you’re getting digital stuff over old phone lines,” he said.
“When we’re looking at what the average download and upload speeds are, our stuff is 70% slower than what the average is for North Carolina.”
Those speed differences are not matters of mere convenience.
“You have people losing time, losing money, losing business opportunities because your internet access is slow,” he said.
‘Changing the Math’
“The digital divide is really several problems, not just one,” Nate Denny, North Carolina’s deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity, said in an interview last month.
Accessibility, affordability, availability of devices, and digital literacy: each problem is difficult to solve on its own.
Denny’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity is a part of the N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT). Another office within the division, the Broadband Infrastructure Office, runs the GREAT grant program.
“In most rural counties, many residents have all four of those problems,” Denny said.
The state is focused on addressing each, but accessibility alone is complex.
Expanding access requires a major investment from the internet providers, he said, and these companies aren’t going to commit unless it also makes financial sense.
“Internet providers finance their investments in their own network with revenues from their subscribers, and that means they have to have a return on any investment,” Denny said.
“If you are laying fiber down a rural stretch of highway in Warren County,” Denny said, “and you’ve only got three houses over a mile stretch of highway, you’re never going to get that return.”
The grant programs are intended to help communities, but they are pitched as boons to the companies, he said.
“All of our infrastructure investment programs are focused on changing that math, changing the business case for providers to serve new places,” Denny said.
The Limits of Infrastructure
Eight percent of North Carolina households don’t have access to a computer. In Warren County, it’s 19%.
And what good is broadband if it’s too expensive?
“I can run fiber right up to your front door, but if you can’t afford the cost of service, you’re still going to get left behind,” Denny said.
The average internet subscription costs over $60 a month, he said, which is out of reach for nearly 1.5 million North Carolinians.
Both federal and state funding, however, is tuned to the problem.
To qualify for the GREAT grants, providers must participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal initiative overseen by the Federal Communications Commission that provides $30 a month discounts to qualifying families.
“We’re trying to incentivize more deployment. We’re trying to make sure that North Carolinians know where to access resources to afford the service. We’re trying to make sure that they have devices at home and that there are opportunities to build the skills they need,” Denny said.
Some rural populations in North Carolina grew after the pandemic, a side effect of the remote work revolution. The lower cost of living and slower pace attracted transplants and retirees alike, especially in counties close to cities.
Warren County’s proximity to Raleigh, however, didn’t help this time.
While its population rose by 1% from 2020 to 2021 after a decade of decline, it fell again in 2022 by .42%.
The lack of reliable internet could be a major reason.
Of the six rural North Carolina counties that saw the most growth between 2021 and 2022, all of them had much better household internet and computer access.
In Brunswick County, where 90% of households have broadband, the population grew by nearly 6% in 2022.
Progress Is Not Always a Straight Line
Rural counties may need broadband, but they can’t apply for GREAT grants. By state statute, only the service providers can make a bid.
The state’s scoring system awards points for the size of the area covered, the cost, and the speeds offered.
When it became clear that federal legislation provided an infusion of capital, Cooper told his team to design an approach that “creates additional flexibility for local communities to have input in the process,” Denny said.
The GREAT grants are competitive, and providers have a better chance at success if they’ve worked with local leaders, Denny said. They also contain protections to ensure the providers are holding up their end of the deal.
“They won’t see a dime until they’ve done work and shown receipts,” he said.
“Providers have two years upon signing the grant agreements to actually execute the project. They understand the urgency.”
A Long Road
Before Jones got the job in 2018, he said, Warren County considered taking on debt to build a fiber network themselves.
Estimates put the cost at $15-20 million.
Local officials commissioned a feasibility study, but couldn’t attract providers. Companies insisted the county put up more money than they could afford, he said.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, “there was tons of funding available,” he said.
In addition to the two GREAT grants, another internet provider, AccessOn, secured a federal grant through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand broadband.
“It appears that we will have a county fully covered with fiber opportunities in two years,” Jones said.
That’s not a timeframe that would have been likely without the federal money and the state’s recognition of the problem, he said.
Now they are just waiting on promises to be delivered so they can focus on other big improvements, like a new Greenway system, increased train service, and another community center.
“I hope the Broadband companies move forward as soon as humanly possible,” Jones said.
“It will help us reach our potential here.”