Putting a face on the rural broadband problem | News
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Putting a face on the rural broadband problem

Posted by on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 2:30 PM

Anyone reading Triangulator is probably not suffering the agony of a dial-up connection. But millions of people across North Carolina are lucky to get any connection to the Internet at all. In rural parts of the state especially, high-speed Internet often isn’t available.

This week, the national consumer advocacy group Free Press posted a set of video interviews titled "Five Days on the Digital Dirt Road" that put faces on the people who live on the wrong side of the digital divide and explains the economic and personal consequences of not having access. This Saturday, Free Press will host a town hall meeting in Durham on the issue. The group invites citizens and advocacy groups to join a nationwide effort for more accessible and affordable Internet access.

Farmer Jay Foushee of Person County, north of Durham, tells of repeatedly calling his local phone company to ask for DSL, only to hear conflicting answers. “I keep getting, ‘Well, it's coming, it's coming.’ And this has been going on for about three years now.”

Foushee’s story is familiar to thousands of people in Chatham County, including Andy Upshaw and his neighbors, whom the Indy recently profiled. Chatham officials estimate 45 percent of residents and businesses don’t have high-speed Internet service either because they lack access or can’t afford it.

Karl Bode at DSL Reports (a great source for critical journalism on the technology industry), points out that by going on the road to meet people like Jay Foushee, Free Press is giving the lie to a common refrain in national media coverage of the rural broadband issue –- a refrain repeated by the industry –- that rural Americans don’t have broadband because they don’t want it or haven’t bothered to ask for it.

“Having been covering the industry for going on a decade, we can, without reservation, tell you that's the dumbest thing we've ever heard,” Bode writes.

“In response, consumer group Free Press is doing something that most of the pundits, lobbyists and politicians have never done -- actually going into rural America to explore coverage gaps.”

Talking directly to the people affected: Always a good idea for journalists, politicians and policy makers.

Person County officials, like many other local representatives across the state, are speaking up about their broadband woes. Rep. Winkie Wilkins (D-Durham, Person) brought several of his constituents to speak before the legislature on the issue last year, and Wilkins now sits on the N.C. House Ways & Means/Broadband Connectivity Committee.

That political pressure may be having an impact. A story in today's RoxboroCourier-Times reports an announcement from phone company Embarq that DSL service has been extended to the Hurdle Mills area.

"[B]ut Personians who have been working to get the service ... were not immediately impressed," writes reporter Phyliss Boatwright. She spoke with a number of Hurdle Mills residents who called Embarq and were told they still can't get connected.

Marcia McNally, who has spearheaded the attempt by a group of Person County residents to get high speed access to rural areas, said, “As soon as I heard about Embarq’s announcement that it was providing high speed internet access to ‘hundreds in Hurdle Mills’ I tried to order service. Of course, I am not able to get it. At this rate, it would take 20 years for Embarq to service the county. By doing it in this piecemeal way they get great PR every year. I said it at the county commissioners’ meeting in January and I’ll say it again: we will not be placated by Embarq. If the company is not willing to give all Person County residents whole access to this basic utility then they should step aside so a company that is willing to work with us will.”

Registration is still open for the Internet for Everyone event, which begins at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Durham Marriott Convention Center downtown. Bus transportation is available from Asheville, Hickory and Greensboro. Click here for more information or call (877) 888-1533.

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