Got broadband? If not, local nonprofit MAIN wants you to map it

Although broadband or high-speed Internet access is fairly common in Asheville, many Western North Carolinians can’t get it if they wanted to, largely because the infrastructure doesn’t extend to their communities and homes. Thanks to a grant, local nonprofit MAIN has a mapping tool that could help get access to the nearly 48,000 WNC residents who are missing out on the digital revolution. (For a statewide map, go to the e-ncbroadband website.)

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a minimum of 4 megabytes per second upload speed. That’s significantly lower than the speeds common in much of the industrialized world, and nowhere near fast enough for streaming video, sharing climate data, hosting interactive online classes and many other tasks need for what’s being termed “next generation connectivity.” In 2010, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University concluded in a study for the FCC, “U.S. broadband performance in the past decade has declined relative to other countries and is no better than middling.” In short, approximately 19 million Americans lack broadband access (at even the 4 Mbps threshold), and the U.S. ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption per capita, and 26th (out of 32 industrialized countries) in typical speeds available.

The average broadband speed in the U.S. in just under 7 Mbps — about half the average in South Korea, which aims to deploy 100 Mbps to all its residents. North Carolina, by the way, ranks 27th among U.S. states and territories, according to the data provided by the National Broadband Map (Guam ranks 17th, and New Jersey is No. 1.).
Why does this matter?

In the U.S., the Internet accounted for 8 percent of America’s GDP growth from 1995 to 2009. Since 2004, it’s accounted for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth, so the Internet is only growing in importance. Since World War II, technological innovation has been responsible for more than half of our economic growth. In the digital age, broadband is our innovation infrastructure.

Julian Genachowski, FCC chairman, 2011 speech at LivingSocial

Federal stimulus monies and other funding supports a variety of projects that aim to make sure North Carolina in general and WNC in particular don’t fall further behind in the economic, educational and other benefits of broadband, just to note a few highlights:

MCNC, created by the General Assembly in 1980 and then called the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, is extending middle-mile infrastructure across the state, focusing primarily on schools, libraries, hospitals and other public institutions.

ERC Broadband, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last September, has been linking WNC communities, extending miles of fiber links from Boone to Franklin.

• the Mountain Area Information Network, which received a $10,000 Rural Digital Advocacy grant last fall. Here’s the latest update on the project:

Press release
from the Mountain Area Information Network

ASHEVILLE – Residents of Western North Carolina plagued by sub-par broadband Internet access – or no access at all – can document their experience to share with policymakers thanks to a new website from the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” enables WNC residents to run a broadband speed test and submit the results to be mapped and measured against the official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband availability map. The free website also allows residents to map locations where broadband is not available.

The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, cannot get wired broadband service from a cable or telephone company. That estimate includes more than 48,000 residents in 16 counties in Western North Carolina.

“Based on our experience, we believe the FCC is underestimating the scope of this problem,” said Wally Bowen, executive director of MAIN, which has advocated for Internet access in rural areas since 1995. The FCC’s estimate is based primarily on data provided by the cable and telephone companies.

“This new website empowers citizens to compare their real-life experience with the FCC data, but more importantly, it dissects the broadband problem, provides ideas for solving it, and shows citizens how to add their voices to the policy debate,” said Bowen.

Telecommunications is widely regarded as one of the most arcane and complex public policy issues. “Of course, those who benefit from this complexity prefer to keep it that way,” said Bowen. “Our goal is to decipher the world of broadband policy and make it accessible to the folks who are most affected by these policies.”

In a speech last May, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted the centrality of broadband access in daily life and the high costs incurred by broadband deficits.  “Millions being left out of jobs, left out of digital learning, is not just an economic issue; it’s a civil rights issue,” he said. 

Once considered a luxury, broadband is now a necessity for getting an education, finding a job, and participating in civic affairs. “Today, if you don’t have adequate broadband access, you are riding in the back of the bus,” Bowen said.

Increasingly, broadband-deprived citizens have turned to public libraries. But 65 percent of libraries report “insufficient” workstations to meet public demand, and almost half report “insufficient” broadband speed, according to the annual “Public Libraries and the Internet” survey. The FCC’s current definition of broadband sets a minimum speed of 4 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” will serve as a platform for citizens’ voices to share their experiences and to press key policymakers and elected officials for a solution to the rural broadband deficit. 

“Solving this problem isn’t rocket science,” said Bowen. “We’ve seen this movie before. Seventy-five years ago, for-profit electric utilities left rural America in the dark, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act and allowed local communities to solve the problem themselves by creating nonprofit electric cooperatives.”

Funding for a similar Rural Broadband Act has already been approved by Congress via the Universal Service Fund. Last year, the FCC converted USF to the Connect America Fund, with plans to spend $4.5 billion a year through 2020 for rural broadband deployment. The money comes from the $1-$2 USF fee paid each month by all US telephone subscribers. 

Under current FCC rules, only incumbent telephone companies are eligible for CAF subsidies.  However, the largest of these carriers – Verizon and AT&T – have refused the subsidies. Moreover, the large carriers have notified the FCC that they plan to abandon their wired networks in rural and other unprofitable areas.

“The refusal of Connect America funding by the big carriers, plus their plans to abandon their wired networks in rural areas, is a policy earthquake that’s been ignored by corporate media,” Bowen said.

“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” is a major step toward making the rural broadband deficit a front-burner issue, he said. 

The website is phase one of a project funded by a $10,000 Rural Digital Advocacy grant from the Rural Policy Action Partnership, which includes the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, the Center for Rural Strategies, Network Impact, Inc., and the Kellogg Foundation.

The project, “Mapping Our Issues: Data Visualization Made Easy for Rural Activists,” also provides training for rural activists in how to use digital mapping and data-visualization to deepen public understanding of their issues. The training will initially focus on staff and volunteers from five local nonprofit partners: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Canary Coalition, Disability Partners, Western Region Education Services Alliance, and Mountain Area Health Education Center.

MAIN’s project partner is Navigating Our Future, a nonprofit developer of civic IT infrastructure based in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, WA. 

For more information, contact Wally Bowen at 828.255.0182 or e-mail:


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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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