The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday December 7th

Lack of broadband access creates additional obstacles for students

One Christmas, Elly Sprinkle and her sister drove with their father to the public library in Stokes County, North Carolina, where they used the library's WiFi to set up their new iPods while sitting in the parking lot. 

Sprinkle, a UNC junior, grew up without access to high-speed, broadband internet at her father’s house — like 7 percent of the North Carolina population. The majority of the population without internet is in rural counties in the far western or eastern parts of the state.

“Most of Stokes County is small towns, so it was a problem throughout a lot of Stokes County,” Sprinkle said. “A lot of people did have internet, but a lot of my friends didn’t and didn’t have a lot of ways to get it.”

The term broadband generally refers to high-speed internet connection that is available at all times, but can be expanded to include digital subscriber lines, satellite, fiber or cable connections. While wireless data plans are becoming more readily available through phone providers, most analyses focus on wireline internet in their descriptions of broadband access.

In many areas where broadband is technically available, lack of competition between providers makes internet too expensive for many to afford. Twelve percent of the North Carolina population has access to fewer than two providers. 

“My dad still doesn’t have internet,” Sprinkle said. “We had dial-up for a while, and dial-up was the only thing anybody had. We couldn’t get internet for any sort of reasonable price.”

Nationwide, 7 percent of people lack access to 25 megabits per second broadband, which is the baseline for being considered high-speed, according to a Brookings report. This is disproportionately true in rural areas, where 27.4 percent of people live without high-speed broadband. 

In North Carolina, 585,000 people live in areas where their wired connection cannot reach 25 Mbps, and another 145,000 live where no wired connection is available at all.

Sprinkle said a lack of reliable internet makes school more difficult for students. When completing assignments that required the internet, she often had to make other plans or find ways to drive to an establishment in the town with free internet, like Starbucks.

“We used to try to explain my situation to teachers a lot, and some of them were understanding and would give me extensions, but that didn’t always help,” Sprinkle said. “Before I could drive, I had friends that would drive me places or I had to talk to teachers about doing alternative assignments.”

Sprinkle experienced more problems because of teachers who could not provide alternate assignments and a general lack of transportation.

“A lot of teachers would just tell me to stay after school and use the computer lab, but I had to ride the bus home because there was no one to pick me up,” she said. “It was definitely constant struggle.”

Johnna Cheek, principal of South Stokes High School, said the staff try to make allowances as much as possible for students without internet access. The school has high-speed broadband.

“Here at South we offer smart breakfast, which is tutoring every morning for about 30 minutes,” Cheek said. “So if students need to complete something online they certainly can come here and use our wireless to complete assignments, and they can actually get here pretty early.”

UNC junior Ian Farris went to high school in Mt. Gilead, N.C., in Montgomery County. Farris lived seven minutes outside of the town in a community of about 20 people called Mangum. In Montgomery County, 56.5 percent of the population has access to high-speed broadband, compared to 93 percent of the state population. 

“You can use your phone to create hot spots for your computer, but that’s expensive and we didn’t get very good cell service out there either,” Farris said. “In those remote locations it doesn’t make your life super hard, but you have to plan extra because you can’t just go home and do your homework.”

Farris was in a dual enrollment program at Montgomery Community College during high school, which was entirely conducted online.

“You can work on it during school, but you can’t study during school because you’re doing the work,” he said. “So when you go home you better have saved the screenshots of the information you needed or you have to go get some internet somewhere.”

The NC BRIGHT Future Project is a North Carolina initiative to provide high-speed internet access to people in rural areas in the state. The BRIGHT Futures Act was introduced to the General Assembly in February 2017 and was sponsored by 29 representatives from both parties. 

The purpose of the act is to allow local governments to lease infrastructure to providers of wired and wireless internet. Sprinkle said the reason her father’s house had no internet was because it was too expensive for providers to build the required infrastructure for so few people. 

The bill passed in the N.C. House and was referred to the N.C. Senate Committee on Rules and Operations on April 21, 2017. No action has been taken since then. The bill has not been reintroduced since the legislative session convened Wednesday.

Farris said a local solution is the best way to close the gap between those with internet access and those without.

“Especially if it’s going through local governments and you keep any partisan politics out of it, I think there would be a lot of support,” Farris said. “For small towns, to be able to put that in their control is great because they know exactly who needs internet access and where.”


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