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Leigh O. of Whitsett is tired of playing “the game.”
Every couple of months, she has to take time out of her day to call Spectrum’s customer support and ask for them to lower her rates. When she initially signed up, they offered her an introductory rate of $54.99 per month. After one year, the price went up to $69.99. But as a disabled woman over the age of 50, paying that much for internet alone is financially burdensome.
“I have a problem with affordability and the lack of competition in every zip code,” she said. “The lack of competition keeps prices unaffordable. I’m disabled and my income is disability only — $70 per month for internet only via Spectrum is not at all reasonable.”
For the last several weeks, Guilford County staff have been working to collect stories like Leigh’s in an effort to understand the problems many county residents have when it comes to accessing or affording high-speed internet. Recently, the county approved a $500,000 contract with Guidehouse, a Chicago consultancy firm, to gather information and make recommendations to alleviate the issues. So far Guidehouse and county staff have collected data from an online survey, hosted multiple community meetings and conducted interviews with stakeholders, such as staff with Guilford County Schools and the area municipalities, to get a full scope of the problem.
This kind of comprehensive project, according to Assistant County Manager Jason Jones, is the first of its kind for Guilford County.
“It’s been a lot of information,” Jones said. “We haven’t really moved in this space so it’s really great to be able to use this as an opportunity to hopefully set a precedent of engagement.”
According to Jones, the $500,000 contract was executed through $104 million in funds provided by the federal government to Guilford County through the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, last year. So far about $2 million of that funding has been used, according to Jones, and depending on the recommendations that Guidehouse brings forth, some of the remaining $102 million could be used to implement solutions.
“I’m disabled and my income is disability only — $70 per month for internet only via Spectrum is not at all reasonable.”
However, Jones noted that the funding allocated through ARPA came with different rules than previous funding, such as money from the CARES Act in 2020. With ARPA, Jones said that the government requires a lot more documentation and reporting. That’s why he says the county is being methodical about how they spend it.
“We’re trying to figure out what is more pressing and optimize local, state and federal dollars to get the most bang for our buck,” Jones said. “What are the things we should strategically prioritize?”
In addition to data collection around broadband access, county staff are also conducting simultaneous projects looking at healthcare access, education and workforce development so they will have to determine how much money to spend on each issue in the next few months.
For the ARPA funding, Jones said that they have until the end of 2026 to spend the funds, which must be committed to projects by the end of 2024. To determine how to allocate the roughly $102 million that remains, Jones said the county will be opening up a portal on their website on Feb. 14 for the public to submit their ideas. The goal is to allocate the funds by the end of June 2023.
“You have to be very methodical, very intentional about how you spend the money for community resiliency as it relates to this ever happening again,” Jones said.
Initial conversations about broadband access and affordability began towards the beginning of the pandemic, when schools first moved to virtual learning. Many students and families found that they didn’t have adequate internet access or speed to keep up with video calls and online classes. Around the same time, Guilford County Schools noted that even the wifi hotspots they set up using buses in different parts of the county weren’t optimal because of the lack of access in some areas.
For Leigh O., who preferred to go by just her last initial for fear of online harassment, the problem isn’t just her financial status but her location. As a resident of Whitsett, Leigh lives in District 4, in the easternmost part of Guilford County. That area, which spans from Browns Summit through McLeansville and down to Forest Oaks, has been found to have “less consumer choice and the lowest quality broadband” according to findings by Guidehouse. Districts 1, 2, 7 and 8 which span from southeast Guilford County in High Point and Jamestown through south Greensboro and into the northeastern parts of the city, were found to have “less consumer choice and may face affordability barriers.” The remaining districts 3, 5 and 6 which start in central Greensboro and span westward towards Colfax, Kernersville and northwest to Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale fared the best of all with “greatest consumer choice and highest quality broadband in terms of number of provider options and internet speeds available.”
According to Wirefly, a phone and internet provider comparison website, 97 percent of consumers in Greensboro have access to DSL and 99.8 percent have access to cable. Only 25 percent have access to fiber technology, which is one of the fastest internet options. The average upload speed in Greensboro is 6 Mbps or megabits per second, while the average download speed is 9 Mbps. Mbps is a unit of measurement for network bandwidth. Another comparison website, BestNeighborhood.org noted that the average Guilford County home can expect to get speeds up to 45 Mbps with DSL. However, even getting that much would be a dream for people who live on the outskirts of the county like GC Ritchie.
Ritchie, who also lives in District 4, said that it’s not an affordability issue, but an access issue.
“We know that fiber runs in a couple of miles within our house but I’m not sure who’s going to invest to get it to run to all these country houses,” Ritchie noted. “I can see that almost all of Guilford County has 25 Mbps which is what they think should be a good standard and almost the whole county seems to have that except this southeastern corner.”
Ritchie, who currently uses AT&T for his internet service, says that he’s lucky if he gets anywhere from 3-5 Mbps for the $61 per month that he pays.
Most of the time his internet is so slow that it prevents him from conducting telecalls for work, which he says he tries to do from home.
“This morning I was on a video call with one other person and I was frozen the whole time,” he said.
The problem, he says, is that there are so few houses spread so far apart that he doesn’t think any company would find it profitable to lay down more cable or other infrastructure for faster internet. For the last year or so, he and his neighbors had been waiting for Starlink, a satellite internet service operated by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, to reach their coverage area.
“A lot of people have signed up,” Ritchie said. “You have to pay $100 up front. It was supposed to be available in the last half of last year, but it didn’t happen. Now it’s supposed to happen in the first half of this year. It’s not as good as cable and I think it would be like $100 per month and it would be $500 for the equipment but I would do it in a heartbeat.”
On Wednesday, NorthState announced that they would be expanding its 100 percent fiber-optic network into Alamance, Guilford, Orange and Wayne Counties to service more than 53,000 homes and businesses. The plan is to lay down more than 800 miles of fiber to its network by mid-2023.
Although Ritchie doesn’t have any children in school, he’s seen firsthand the impact that slow internet can have on kids’ ability to learn. When his grandkids visit him and try to do homework at his house, the internet is too slow. Even now, Ritchie sometimes has to drive to his daughter’s house 15 minutes away in Forest Oaks to be able to do his job. And it’s not just about work either. Ritchie says that because his internet is so slow, they can’t stream movies or TV shows like other families can and end up having to pay $100 per month for satellite. That’s another extra cost that wouldn’t exist if they had better options.
“You can get so much for free if you’ve got good internet,” he said.
“I can see that almost all of Guilford County has 25 Mbps which is what they think should be a good standard and almost the whole county seems to have that except this southeastern corner.”
As the county continues to get updates from Guidehouse, Jones said that the next steps will be figuring out the best solutions for the myriad of problems that consumers face and how to implement them. They’ll also have to decide whether they’ll use the federal funding from ARPA or try to use local or state dollars. Either way, Jones said that they know having access to high-speed internet, especially since the pandemic, has become more critical.
“If you don’t have access to high-speed internet for work or school, there are probably a lot of other things that are important that are deficiencies that you can assume from there,” Jones said. “We are trying to more deeply understand that.”
As for those who continue to struggle like Leigh O., who accesses the internet for everything from doctor’s appointments to Medicare updates and paying bills or shopping, all they can do for the time being is wait.
“We need more competition for sure,” she said. “But some entity would need to make sure they were truly competitive and not fixing rates to remain high all over. And we need easier ways to complain about providers’ slow service or service interruptions. Complaining to your provider about your provider is just banging your head against a brick wall.”
Learn more about how the county’s spending ARPA funding here.
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