"We had everything we needed until the Internet came along," Andy Upshaw says while walking past the pond on his idyllic 28-acre homestead. For three decades, he and his wife, Vaughn, have lived off a gravel road in rural Chatham County between Pittsboro and Siler City. Andy earns his living doing landscaping and growing perennials for a home-based nursery business. Vaughn teaches at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government and commutes an hour round-trip each day.
It has never bothered the Upshaws that they have to drive eight miles for a quart of milk or a gallon of gas. "When you live in the country, you expect things not to be convenient," Andy Upshaw says. Cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers gather on the tall black walnut trees beside the 100-year-old barn. There's no road noise, only the sound of a rooster crowing and wind in the leaves. Down the road, his neighbors nurture crops for their community-supported agriculture business, part of a growing enclave of niche and organic farming that's helping to shore up an otherwise struggling local economy.
"We like the rural life," Upshaw says, "but we wish we could have decent access to the rest of the world."
Like many people who live in rural America, Upshaw finds it increasingly hard to run his business, stay informed or communicate with friends and relatives when his only access to the Internet comes over a dial-up connection. On a good day, e-mail headers take half an hour to download, and an attachment can freeze up the computer. Forget about watching a YouTube video—downloading one can take two hours.
Adding to the Upshaws' dissatisfaction is the awareness that other areas of the world, including parts of Africa, are better connected. Vaughn's parents live in Eldoret, Kenya, where they have high-speed Internet access. When they visit the Upshaws once a year, they complain about the slow connection. "When my mother sends me YouTube links from Africa," she says, "I know it's bad."
The Upshaws and other rural residents are becoming increasingly frustrated as they try to persuade phone and cable companies that serve Chatham County to provide service where they live. County officials estimate 45 percent of households and businesses in Chatham do not have high-speed Internet.
Telephone and cable companies say it's too expensive to invest in the equipment necessary to extend service to sparsely populated areas, and that despite the vocal complaints of some citizens, only about 30 percent of households eligible for their services do so.
These areas of the United States could receive money for broadband access as part of the federal economic stimulus package. It includes $7.2 billion in grants, loans, tax breaks and other programs to invest in high-speed Internet in mostly rural communities. While policy watchers debate the merits of that public investment—including the sticky subject of where and how the money will be spent—rural residents are wondering whether federal help will allow them to connect to a world that appears to be moving on without them.
"I think most of Chatham County is on a dirt road in the other direction from the information highway," Upshaw says.
A picture of Chatham
Chatham is like several counties in one. Its 700 square miles include the fast-growing bedroom communities in the northeast; the small-town bohemia of Pittsboro, with its artsy cafes, community college and homegrown music scene; and the expanding Latino community in Siler City. Farmers, ranchers, truckers, factory workers and retirees are dispersed all over the county, for an average of only 85 people per square mile. By contrast, Wake County has more than 1,000.
"We're perfectly positioned here," says Chatham County Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck. "We're this little jewel that's within striking distance of Chapel Hill and Raleigh."
Chatham is up-and-coming, but it's also on an unsustainable path. The population has grown by more than 20 percent in the past 10 years, mostly in the northeast, where residents commute to jobs at Research Triangle Park, UNC and Duke. New affluent subdivisions strain the county's infrastructure, as does the lack of a sufficient commercial tax base. Meanwhile, there have been devastating job losses within the county, including more than 800 at the Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant in Siler City last May. Most new in-county jobs pay low wages.
Vanderbeck says the job losses began in 1990. "This exodus is nothing new," he says. "We were known as the cheapest labor source in the area. Not a good thing as far as recruiting better jobs with better working conditions."
The recent economic downturn only compounds the county's plight. It's going to take more than microbreweries and antique shops to turn things around. Vanderbeck sees high-speed Internet access as crucial to attracting high-tech jobs that could improve the county's economic future.
"We're in a real tough bind. How do we attract good, 21st-century businesses here? How do we keep people here? Once kids go off to school, you think they want to come back? They can't get on Facebook," he says, laughing. "A lot of people want to come here, but it's like, 'Welcome to the void.'"
The issue of connectivity is a personal one for Vanderbeck. It took years to get DSL access where he lives, near the Haw River and the Alamance County line. "Dial-up was crippling," he says.
In December, Vanderbeck and Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller addressed a North Carolina General Assembly committee assigned to investigate the lack of high-speed Internet access in rural areas.
"This is an issue of fairness and opportunity," Voller told lawmakers. "Right now there is an information superhighway, but too many of our citizens are accessing what we all know as the equivalent of the information dirt road."
Chatham is far from the worst off. According to the e-NC Authority, a state entity dedicated to expanding high-speed Internet access, as of last year there were four counties in which fewer than 50 percent of residents had access. Last year, e-NC provided $1.2 million in taxpayer-funded matching grants to Embarq to build DSL in those four counties.
State officials are taking notice. "It's a high priority for me," says Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, who represents Chatham County. "In terms of constituent services, broadband has probably been the top thing we've worked on." He says his staff has sometimes been able to help residents get connected by communicating with company reps. Hackney launched a special House committee on the issue last session, and this year, he added broadband connectivity to both the name and the mission of the House Ways and Means committee.
Big policy changes and infrastructure investments tend to come from Washington, not Raleigh.
"It seems to me that we are poised to make the big jump here toward universal broadband with the stimulus package and the Obama administration's full weight behind it," Hackney says.
But experience has taught Chatham officials to expect little help from the federal government.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed $15.6 million in grants to establish broadband service in rural areas. None of the 25 communities that received a grant was in North Carolina. George Lucier, chair of the Chatham Board of Commissioners, believes that's because the agency's guidelines don't account for the bigger picture.
Chatham County had partnered with a local wireless Internet provider on a plan to provide service to two townships in the western part of the county. But the project was ineligible for a USDA grant because a small handful of residents had access to DSL—though the rest did not. Access along a single street in Bear Creek disqualified the entire 82-square-mile township.
Last April, Lucier wrote to the USDA pleading for assistance. "We are facing enormous challenges to foster the rural economic development which is critically needed to create the economic opportunities that will keep our young people in the county and bring back those who have left," he wrote. "Without economic opportunities, the effort to sustain a vibrant, rural community becomes an increasingly uphill battle."
The USDA will distribute about a third of the federal broadband stimulus money. The agency never responded to Lucier's letter.
Frustration and disconnect
The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is designed to inject enough money into the nation's economy to get its heart pumping again. Less than 1 percent will fund the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, intended to expand broadband service in the nation's rural areas and urban centers through grants, loans and tax credits to Internet service providers. The hope is that broadband can create jobs in the short- and long-term, improve educational opportunities and increase innovation in science and business.
Technology advocates take heart in the fact that President Barack Obama views the Internet as part of the nation's critical infrastructure. Yet the amount of money that will fund that digital infrastructure falls far short of what some had hoped for. The nonprofit group EDUCAUSE proposed spending $100 billion (PDF) to connect every home and business in the country to a fiber-optic network that could offer speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps), which is common for households in Japan. That's light speed compared to the services Chatham residents are clamoring for. Embarq's basic $30-a-month DSL service advertises download speeds up to 768 Kilobits per second (Kbps).
There are those who believe that spending any money on rural broadband is a boondoggle. With technology changing rapidly, public investment in existing technology could prove to be a waste, argue conservative groups such as the John Locke Foundation.
Others say demand isn't high enough to merit the expense, and a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project has been fodder for their arguments. In surveys of dial-up users (about 9 percent of American adults, according to Pew) and those who do not use the Internet (25 percent), about half said nothing would make them sign up for broadband. For 14 percent, broadband wasn't available, and 18 percent said it was too expensive.
"Other people don't like to say bad things about rural areas," Michael Katz, former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "So I will." He described rural places as energy inefficient and hostile to the environment because the population is spread out, and he argued that the broadband stimulus money should be spent on other national needs.
"The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs they impose on society [...] from an efficiency point of view, and an equity one, is misguided."
"[A]s I look at it, the noise about a broadband gap is hooey," Saul Hansell, editor of the New York Times' Bits blog, recently wrote. "With new cable modem technology becoming available, 19 out of 20 American homes will be able to have Internet service that is faster than any available now anywhere in the world. And that's without one new cable being laid."
But Andy Upshaw and his neighbors don't have cable—neither Time Warner Cable nor Charter, the county's current cable providers, serve that neighborhood. Tom Vanderbeck is able to get three or four TV channels using an antenna, but given the small salary he makes as a full-time public official, he isn't willing to pay for satellite TV.
It may be hard for those arguing in Washington to picture what life is like for people like the Upshaws, or to appreciate the sense of urgency they feel. Andy employs a handful of people for his landscaping work, and both the state and federal government now request tax and wage reports be filed online. But Upshaw can't do it; he mails the forms.
Upshaw specializes in plants that bloom in winter. Inside the greenhouse, he shows off about a dozen flats of cyclamen, whose pink blossoms are open on a crisp early February day. "If I had a photo of that online," he says, "I think I could sell it." But he can't maintain a Web site for his small business using dial-up. Other plant nursery owners have told him that online orders are increasing so much, they've reduced their walk-in hours. Meanwhile, his business has declined.
His 5-year-old twin boys just started kindergarten and are already being directed to access online assignments at home. Their mother would love to be able to occasionally work from home so she could spend more time with them and less in the car, she says. But it's just not possible.
Just how slow is dial-up? For those of us connected to broadband networks, it can be hard to imagine.
A PDF can take 45 minutes to download. And those virus protection updates a PC routinely needs? The couple drives to Pittsboro to buy them on disk, because the connection times out before the updates finish downloading.
Dial-up can't go any faster than 56 Kbps, and Upshaw says his fastest speed is 48 Kbps. "Some days, it's a slow as 2 Kbps," Upshaw says. "When it's that slow, you just turn off the computer."
For years, Upshaw intermittently has lobbied the phone company Embarq, which provides phone service to about 70 percent of the county, to extend to his house the DSL service it offers to people just a few miles away. He and his neighbors describe spending hours on the phone with low-level company representatives who give conflicting information about when, or whether, service will be made available.
"It makes you feel frustrated, and after a while, angry," Upshaw says.
Across the creek from Upshaw's house, where his gravel path meets the paved road to the highway, there's a new development of suburban-style homes. The yard of one house is decorated with garden gnomes and American flags.
Donna Moldovan answers the door with a raised eyebrow. Asked about her Internet access, she laughs bitterly. "That's a real touchy subject around here," she says.
Originally from Chicago, Donna and her husband Bill are retired. They began calling Embarq in 2006 when they moved to the neighborhood. At first, company reps told them DSL would be coming in a matter of months; then the date kept moving. Most recently they were told Embarq has no plans to offer service in their area, even as they can hear from their living room the sound of a construction crew building another house. The couple never expected getting Internet service would be this much trouble. "We've been dealing with this for two years," Donna says.
Since Bill needed high-speed access to run his cottage business selling electronics over eBay, they sprang for satellite service from HughesNet—for a while. It required the purchase of several hundred dollars' worth of equipment on top of the $79 monthly fee. But the Moldovans say the speed was slower than the 1.2 Mbps advertised, and the service was unreliable. "Every time it got cloudy, the Internet didn't work," he says. Broken equipment and bad experience with customer service caused them to drop the service. They now pay $65 a month—again, after investing hundreds in equipment—for cellular service from Alltel.
"It's passable," Bill says.
"But it's far from high-speed," Donna adds.
The Moldovans' new neighbor, JoAnn Kane, recently took up the task of negotiating with Embarq. "It's just been really frustrating," she says. Not knowing whom to call, she had several conversations with customer service reps who gave her conflicting information. Then a call to the consumer affairs line produced some advice: Start a petition. In a few days, she and her neighbors had gathered more than 40 names—including the Upshaws'. When she called back, she was told Embarq wouldn't build out to fewer than 170 homes, and her area contains only 140.
A definite no came in the form of a letter: "Unfortunately we are unable to offer this service to your home due to the special equipment requirements associated with high-speed data and the network facilities that are needed to support the high-speed service to your home."
"I am sorry to hear that," Embarq spokesperson Vernon Fraley says in response to Kane's story. "We wish we could accommodate everyone who wants our service."
Two things are required to make regular copper phone lines capable of providing DSL: capacity on the network, and the installation of a DSLAM, or Digital Subscriber Line Access Multi-plexer, which is installed in a large metal box you might see along a roadside.
Fraley says Embarq does receive petitions "from time to time," but he declined to estimate how many or to disclose any corporate guidelines about density. "How populated an area is may be a factor, but the other factor is cost," he says. "Before we can deploy a service like this we must first determine how feasible it is and how cost effective it is to do so."
Yet for all the talk about cost, the company won't disclose that, either. Fraley says that's "proprietary" information. The e-NC Authority estimates the average cost to extend high-speed Internet service to one household is $390.
"One thing customers need to realize," Fraley says, "is that if a few customers want high-speed access and it's not currently available in their area, getting it to them is not an overnight process."
Kane remains frustrated with Embarq's decision. "I just think it's wrong," she says. "I sent them articles showing that kids do better in school when they're able to do research on the Internet. I just really pled our case, and they just don't care." She recently persuaded a crew from Time Warner Cable to come out and take a look at the neighborhood, a prospect that has her cautiously optimistic.
"It's a shame," Kane says, "that in this day and age, the 21st century, we can't enjoy the things people take for granted."
She's even more frustrated to find that, according to e-NC's online interactive map of broadband availability, 70 percent to 89 percent of her part of the county has DSL. (The data e-NC uses to compile that map comes directly from Embarq.)
Policymakers looking at that map will be unable to say where, specifically, the unserved parts of the county are located. Kane fears that any approach to solving the broadband problem based on that data is likely to overlook neighborhoods like hers.
Debra Henzey, Chatham's director of community relations, says inaccurate or low-resolution mapping is one of the biggest challenges county officials have as they begin to tackle the access problem. "It's kind of misleading when you see these maps that say, 'We're getting high-speed Internet out to these places,'" she says. "So it's very challenging for us to get our hands around this issue and figure out where [the providers] really are."
Local problem, local approach
It's uncertain how federal stimulus money will be spent in North Carolina, or how much of it—if any—will reach the people of Chatham County.
So county officials are taking matters into their own hands. They've hired a technology consultant to come up with a solution that can help close the gap. Mark Ellington, Chatham's director of information technology, says the county is beginning to look at ways to solve a complex problem.
"We're looking at people who have high-speed Internet technically available but can't afford it, and other people who can't get anything because they're out in the middle of nowhere," Ellington says. "For most companies, the question is how can they make a profit serving those people. It's a big juggling act."
The solution will have to be "grand in scale," Ellington says, and allow for constant changes in technology. "I'm sure it's not going to be cheap," he says, but it should be cost-effective.
Because the county is so big, wireless service may be the only economically feasible approach. Ellington estimates it would cost close to half a million dollars to run a fiber-optic cable along the 18 miles between Pittsboro and Siler City. That could provide a good backbone for a wireless service that would serve much more of the population.
The current generation of wireless technology—the Wi-Fi most of us use—doesn't travel long distances or do a good job of penetrating buildings. Even the 3G networks that move cellular phone and data signals would be only marginally better in wooded rural areas. (The Upshaws often have to take their cell phones outside to make a call.)
But once television signals switch from analog to entirely digital, there will be more open space on the public airwaves. Those "white spaces," as they're known, include frequencies over which data can travel five or six times as far as Wi-Fi, at a faster speed and do a better job of reaching inside buildings. Private companies will eventually bid for the rights to provide Internet service over those frequencies. Under what terms is yet another question for the Obama administration to answer.
Meanwhile, a local company in Chatham is hoping to provide the solution to the county's problems. Chatham Wireless, an Internet service provider based in Pittsboro, worked on the townships project that the county had hoped the USDA would fund. The company now has a pilot program with the Town of Pittsboro providing network and Internet access for public safety using the town's communication towers and wireless spectrum. Scott Every, CEO of Chatham Wireless, hopes the county will let him use its towers to provide wireless Internet to the public, as well.
"Our big push is, work with us because we're a 100 percent Chatham County-owned business," Every says. "Serving Chatham is what we do. The local telephone franchise can't say that. When you call them up, they can't even necessarily tell you where Chatham County is. The thing we lack is height. That's what I'm trying to partner with the county on."
The monthly cost of Chatham Wireless' service is $45, but download speeds average between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps, depending on how far away from the signal a customer is. Set-up costs also depend on location; an antenna can run $100 to $500.
It doesn't sound much faster or cheaper than what his larger competitors offer, but Scott says there's a big difference. "What I do is serve small pockets," he says. "So we can go set up wireless access for a neighborhood, and if we get five or six customers, that's great for us. Embarq doesn't work that way. They need big chunks of very highly populated areas. We're better suited to do these out-of-the-way tracts of land."
Rural homes like the Upshaws' have electricity in part because of a New Deal-era federal project. In the 1930s, the United States was lagging behind European countries in providing electricity to its rural residents, because private companies weren't willing to run power lines out to low-density areas. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, which made loans available to local electric cooperatives, many of which still exist.
The big phone and cable companies argue that tax credits and government grants would make it more economically feasible for them to serve rural areas. But some broadband advocates believe the Internet will require a New Deal of its own.
Wally Bowen, who runs the Asheville nonprofit organization Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), argues that public money should be invested in local networks—nonprofits, cooperatives and small private companies with local roots—rather than used to bribe monopolies whose business models aren't geared toward serving rural areas in the first place.
Several years ago, a grant from the Rural Internet Access Authority—precursor of the e-NC—helped nonprofits, including MAIN, partner with local for-profit companies to build fiber-optic networks to several mountain-area counties.
"There are local networks like this all over the country," Bowen says. "These local networks should be the focus of the stimulus for the simple common-sense reason that they're ready to build out to rural areas."
Every, of Chatham Wireless, says the Upshaws' neighborhood is a perfect example of the "small pockets" he could serve. He says the county plans to build a water tower a mile and a half away, which could be used to provide a signal to their neighborhood.
In the meantime, Andy and Vaughn Upshaw keep waiting. "It's my wife and my children who are the ones left behind," Andy says. "If the boys get to be 10 or 15 years old and we don't have high-speed Internet, how are they ever going to catch up?"