Jeff Sural, director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, said although Chapel Hill is considered to provide stronger internet access compared to the rest of North Carolina, the influx of college students and residents using the internet in quarantine can result in slower internet connections for those in the area.
“If we equate it to (water) pipes right, you may have a certain size pipe into the apartment complex that’s trying to feed everyone," Sural said. "When everyone turns on their spicket all at once, it can't handle all the demand.”
Fighting slow Wi-Fi
Last week, Emma Cohn’s French class was interrupted by a familiar notification — the Wi-Fi icon on her MacBook Air started to blink, signaling that her connection was giving out.
Cohn said for the last month, the slow internet connection has caused her Zoom classes to lag at least 10 to 15 times per class for around 30 seconds at a time, making it difficult for her to participate in class.
“I can absolutely foresee a way that not having strong internet connection will just be a total impediment to participating in class,” Cohn said. “That’s possible in this situation, when you have to have it to be able to participate in the world and also school.”
Technicians from Spectrum — her internet provider — have made two visits to her duplex on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to fix the problem, which Cohn says has made the issue worse.
“Even if it's not stopping me from doing my homework, it's making it more frustrating,” Cohn said.
More than 7.8 million individuals in North Carolina use Spectrum, one of the top internet providers in the state.
A spokesperson from the company said any issues among residents are likely isolated incidents because there have not been any large-scale outages in Chapel Hill.
Some complexes in the area have upgraded their internet capabilities over the last few weeks to meet the increased demand for internet among residents, like Chapel Ridge, a student housing complex off Northfield Drive. The complex sent an email to its residents on Aug. 21 saying the building would upgrade its internet service.
“We know that with online classes access to the internet is crucial,” the email read. Chapel Ridge did not respond to a request for comment.
Shannon Hodges, a senior living at Chapel Ridge, said the upgrade has improved the way she focuses in her classes.
During her first two weeks of living there, she said the internet would lag at least two to three times per class, all of which are synchronous this semester.
Internet access keeps some students on campus
When UNC shifted classes online three weeks ago, senior Keoana Nettles was worried about going back home to Mecklenburg County.
There, she said her entire family uses the internet. Her mother works as a full-time salesperson for GM Financial, and her brother is completing his high school classes online.
Over the summer, Nettles said she took two geology classes online. At one point, her Wi-Fi stopped working right before a proctored midterm exam.
“When I have a set schedule and things just don’t turn out that way — it was just frustrating,” Nettles said. “But I tried to roll with the punches."
Nettles said she decided to stay at Ram Village 3 to take advantage of UNC’s internet. She depends on the internet every day to take part in full-time class schedule and extracurriculars.
“With actual classes and doing my work, and all that, it definitely hindered me and I would have been extremely frustrated,” Nettles said.
Although 98 percent of individuals in North Carolina have access to the internet, problems arise when determining how many of these individuals have slow connections because it’s difficult to pinpoint the data, Sural said.
“It's the primary means of communication for everyone,” Sural said. “When you don't access it, you’re shut out from all of those opportunities.”
UNC is offering students a $200 internet supplement award through the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid to help students purchase internet this semester, UNC Media Relations said in an email. Eligible students are required to demonstrate financial need and not study in a major or program that was online before the pandemic.
Up to 2,750 students will receive this supplement. So far, 2,526 students have received the award, Media Relations said.
The Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity has asked UNC to provide students with a loaned mobile hotspot and laptop or offer internet service to off-campus students at a reduced price, according to a letter from July 17.
"This program should be available to remove the inequity of students returning to campus due to lack of stable internet at home or live in rural areas without adequate access to the internet," the letter said.