The State of Broadband in North Carolina

Recently I was asked to compare broadband in my state of North Carolina to the rest of the country. It’s an interesting question that folks in many states have been asking.

Parts of North Carolina have the best broadband in the country. There are neighborhoods in the research triangle area where there is fiber from Google Fiber and AT&T and where the cable company offers an affordable gigabit product. That means the lucky homeowners in those neighborhoods are one of a handful of places that have a competitive choice between three gigabit ISPs – something that’s extremely rare.

Like in other states, the cities and larger towns in the state all have a cable provider that offers the basic speeds of more than 100 Mbps, in some cities now 200 Mbps. Since this was traditional AT&T territory, the company has built fiber in small neighborhoods around the state – so there are small pockets of fiber in many communities. However, for most urban residents the cable companies are the only option faster than 50 Mbps and are slowly moving towards becoming the monopoly broadband provider.

Like in most states, North Carolina has huge rural areas with little or no broadband. And like in most places you don’t have to go far outside of any city to find places with dreadful or non-existent broadband. The big telcos have ignored rural copper here like they have done almost everywhere in the country. There are many rural counties with virtually no broadband outside the county seat, and no county that has good broadband everywhere.

Also like most states, there are ISPs providing fiber in rural communities. The state has telephone cooperatives and independent telephone companies that have built or will soon finish the fiber in their traditional service areas. A few of these companies are building outside their traditional footprint, with Riverstreet Networks, owned by Wilkes Telephone Cooperative the most aggressive, and which is building in numerous counties around the state.

There is also a vibrant small WISP industry in the state of ISPs bringing wireless broadband. Like in most states the big issue for the WISPs is finding fiber backhaul. In the western half of the state the impediments to wireless broadband are the mountainous terrain and the thick forests.

The state just voted last year to allow electric cooperatives to enter the broadband business and there are a few of them already considering building fiber. However, unlike many states, there is a lot of rural areas in the state that are served by commercial power companies rather than cooperatives.

Like many other states, North Carolina has an effective ban on municipalities entering the broadband business. Back when fiber-to-the-home was a new technology, the communities of Wilson and Salisbury built fiber networks in their communities and the incumbent providers quickly pushed through legislation stopping municipalities from being ISPs. Municipalities can build and lease broadband facilities to ISPs, but there are enough strings in the law to make it hard to achieve, and difficult to financially justify.

The state has a new broadband grant program set at $15 million this year. While it would probably take more than a century to solve the broadband gaps in the state at $15 million per clip, the funding is still welcome and is bringing solutions to pocket of homes that have had no broadband.

The state takes pride in being first to tackle broadband and had the first statewide government broadband network and was the first state to get fast broadband to all of the schools.

Like most states the broadband gap is widening in some places. Like most states there have been rural hospitals closings, mostly in areas with poor broadband, meaning it’s difficult to provide telemedicine services. There are plenty of stories in the state of families sitting outside of WiFi hotspots so that kids can do homework each night. There are some big stretches of the state where there is little or no cellular service to go along with no broadband. And like everywhere in the country, broadband is priced out of reach of poorer households.

There are a few things unique about broadband in North Carolina, but overall, we look a lot like much of the rest of America. We have homes with great broadband and homes with no broadband. Broadband is creeping into the rural parts of the state but at a glacial pace. Like most states, we still have a long way to go to provide everybody with decent broadband.

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