The people who live in rural Halifax and Nash counties northeast of Raleigh are among the poorest in the state, with unemployment rates of more than 12 and 10 percent, respectively. State Rep. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing the area, says that, with all the challenges her constituents face, among their top concerns is a lack of affordable access to the Internet.
"It's the way you get jobs, it's the way your children progress in school," Bryant said. "It's the way you get information that can help you overcome your hurdles."
This spring, state lawmakers are likely to be preoccupied with the $3 billion projected state budget gap. But money is coming from Washington, as part of the economic stimulus package, to fund broadband Internet service in rural and low-income areas, among other initiatives. The U.S. House recently passed a bill that provided $6 billion in broadband grants, while the U.S. Senate's version increases those grants to $9 billion.
How much of that money North Carolina will get and where that money will be spent are vital questions that are hard to answer without first considering an even deeper one: Who has broadband Internet access and who doesn't?
Bryant is concerned the state's current data, provided by the communications companies, excludes rural communities that face "entrenched poverty," because those areas are lumped with nearby metro areas that do have access. "If we can't narrow the area of no-service to census block areas, we can't target the pockets of poor minority folks who don't have it," she said.
As the House Select Committee on High-Speed Internet Access in Rural Areas wrapped up its work at a Jan. 27 meeting, Bryant and other lawmakers continued to debate the role an industry-backed initiative should play in mapping household Internet access. The key issue is whether the state should base its policy—and spend federal broadband dollars—on the information the industry provides, or whether it should collect its own independently verifiable data.
Telephone and cable industry associations have hired Connected Nation, a nationwide nonprofit group, to map the statewide availability of broadband services using data private companies provide under terms of confidentiality. Connected Nation has been criticized as an industry front group (see "Telecom industry brings Connected Nation to North Carolina").
North Carolina already has e-NC Authority, which functions as part of state government. In 2001, it undertook one of the first statewide broadband maps in the country. The organization also gives matching incentive grants to encourage the industry to build in the state's most under-served areas.
According to e-NC's 2007 report, 83 percent of North Carolina households have access to DSL, cable or other wire line broadband services, slightly fewer than in 2006.
But e-NC's maps are also based on data the industry provides. And because the authority agrees to protect confidentiality at the industry's request, its maps are often incomplete. Its statewide report averages access by county. The interactive map on its Web site (www.e-nc.org/disclaimer.asp) has holes throughout Orange, Chatham and Wake counties that say "data proprietary."
Worse, AT&T has stalled on providing that data to e-NC while supporting Connected Nation. AT&T's Executive Director of External Affairs Herb Crenshaw has repeatedly addressed lawmakers on behalf of Connected Nation. At last month's meeting, he said a map is expected to be ready "by about April or May," in time for consideration in the legislative session, which usually ends in mid-summer.
"We want it to be something in which you can have a lot of confidence on which to make public policy decisions," Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw tried to assuage the concerns of lawmakers who want "granular" data correlated to race and income, and who want that data to be verifiable by an independent party. Crenshaw said that while confidentiality is "critical," there is a "truing up process": If the map incorrectly shows a customer has access, that customer can submit a correction on Connected Nation's Web site.
But Bryant said she is wary of telling constituents without Internet access to go to a Web site to correct the errors.
She moved that the committee recommend to the General Assembly that broadband mapping data should "be granular to the census block level, be correlateable to race and income demographics, be transparent and publicly verifiable, and be collected in a manner that is independent of service providers."
"How would that jibe with the idea of at least starting with Connected Nation?" asked House Minority Whip Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenberg), who wanted the committee's recommendations to more strongly support the industry-backed project. Now that the industry has brought Connected Nation to the table, Tillis said the committee's report should include "some level of endorsement, short of paying for it."
Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange, Caswell), who convened the House committee on Internet access, is among several lawmakers who are frustrated with the limitations of e-NC's mapping. Like Bryant, he represents a county that's both rural and urban. "In Orange County, two-thirds of the population resides in about a quarter of the county," said Faison, who lives in Cedar Grove. "Most of us are dramatically underserved."
Connected Nation appeals to Faison because it promises to provide information that is more thorough and detailed than the countywide averages of e-NC.
But it is uncertain if Connected Nation will provide a solution, or just compound the problem.
Rep. Phillip Haire, a Democrat from Sylva representing four rural mountain counties, reminded the committee of a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission by more than a dozen utilities boards in Kentucky, where Connected Nation first formed as Connect Kentucky. Filed last August, the 20-page complaint details problems with the organization's data collection methods and conflict of interest between the nonprofit and the industry.
"We can't go back and say, 'Well this is what Kentucky has done right,' because a bunch of folks there didn't like it," Haire said. He also raised the question of whether Connected Nation would eventually seek state funding.
Crenshaw replied that the map would be available online for free "for one year."
Tilllis urged legislators to "give this process the benefit of the doubt for a couple of months."
However, the committee voted to adopt the language Bryant proposed in support of independent data.
After the meeting, Bryant said she plans to hold a town hall meeting with constituents when Connected Nation's map is available, to allow them to review and immediately respond to it.
"This is a jobs issue and an economic development issue as well as a quality of life and education issue," she said.
The House Select Committee on High-Speed Internet Access in Rural Areas recommended other legislation to the General Assembly, but it was met with ambivalence about whether to treat broadband as a public utility.
Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange, Caswell) floated a bill to declare broadband a public utility, saying he wanted to provide "a platform for discussion," but the committee shelved it after considerable opposition from the industry.
Lobbyist Dwight Allen, who represents telephone companies, argued that a public utility "has a very specific legal meaning" that involves franchise territories and protected monopolies. He also pointed out that federal decisions would likely pre-empt any state regulations.
The committee did back a bill to allow telephone companies to bundle phone service in areas where they provide Internet service. Under current state law, any company can offer Internet service anywhere in the state, but landline phone service is regulated by franchise areas—Verizon has its area, Embarq its area, and so on. But the bill is really geared to offer a financial incentive to small telephone cooperatives, which operate on business models that are geared toward rural customers.
Faison says the bill is designed to help connect people who live near the boundary of a co-op's franchise territory—they're stuck on dial-up while their neighbors just a few hundred yards away may have a connection to a fiber-optic network many thousand times faster, just because of an arbitrary line state regulators drew years ago to prop up phone monopolies.
"It's really legislation that makes great sense," Faison said, adding that the idea came from the industry.