ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a sharp spotlight on the issue of rural, broadband dead zones that have long handicapped residents of Rockingham County.
In a unique time when work, education and life have quickly shifted to the virtual world, universal access to reliable internet is more important than ever.
“COVID-19 has reemphasized the shortfalls we have, not just in our county, but throughout the state,” said Mark Richardson, chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners.
But a major boost may finally come to the rural county from recently announced grant awards to pay for broadband.
Over the next 20 days, Spectrum Southeast is expected to finalize contracts with the N.C. Department of Information Technology with plans to bring internet access to underserved areas of the county of about 91,000.
Work is expected to begin soon after the contracts are signed, county officials said, explaining they are not sure when the projects will be completed.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration announced in mid-August that Rockingham, along with 10 other rural counties, will receive greater access to high-speed internet thanks to more than $12 million in grants.
Cooper, in partnership with the NCDIT, provided money through the 2019-2020 Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant and COVID-19 Recovery Act funding.
These initiatives are expected to provide high-speed internet to 8,017 families and 254 businesses, farms and community institutions across the state.
Rockingham County will receive $265,416.92 of the $12 million — money expected to deliver internet to 222 households and businesses countywide.
Derek Southern, chief information officer for Rockingham County government, was heavily involved in seeking the grants. He says widespread internet access for the county is well overdue.
“I know houses in the southwest corner that don’t have internet. I know houses in the northwest corner that don’t. I know ones in the center that don’t. I know ones in the northeast and southeast,” Southern said. “It’s all over, not just one area.”
In fact, county officials estimate that more than 60% of the county’s residents don’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet that meets the national standard of 25 Mbps to download and three Mbps to upload.
While it’s confirmed that a large percentage of residents don’t have access to reliable internet, these statistics weren’t evident to the broadband providers tasked with applying for the grants.
“If you look up and follow the national maps, they say that 98% of Rockingham County has access to high-speed broadband,” Southern said. “This is just not true.”
The reason for this discrepancy — national and local statistics are gathered using different methods, Southern explained.
Because the national data is based on access in each of the county’s tax brackets, if just one home or business within a bracket has internet, the whole area is counted as having reliable access even if it does not.
Because of this, Southern and the county had to put in extra work to show internet providers that Rockingham County needed real help.
“We tried to get the companies to help us because they didn’t look at us before,” Southern said. “They thought everyone here has access to internet, but we were able to show them survey data and maps that proved otherwise.”
Southern set up meetings with internet providers from around the area and pitched them the more accurate, “granular” data given by the surveys. Spectrum Southeast agreed to apply for the money and was awarded the funds to help Rockingham County.
One of the data points the county pitched effectively was a survey conducted by Rockingham County Schools, which serves 11,050 students.
In the 30 days after the survey was released, more than 1,000 households with children in the school system responded — the majority of whom said they did not have reliable internet access.
Those RCS survey results were “instrumental” in helping the county receive the GREAT grant, Southern said.
Tara Martin is the mother of two Stoneville Elementary School students in first and fourth grades. And in May, when Martin and her family moved to their new Stoneville home in the northwest corner of the county, they didn’t realize the lack of internet access would pose so many obstacles to their children’s education.
Martin’s sons, Asa, 6, and Isaac, 9, are now in their third week of remote learning. In order for the boys to complete their assignments from home, Martin has to use a mobile hotspot on her phone — a phone she says receives a very weak signal in their area.
“It’s very delayed,” Martin said. “We’re spending honestly more time navigating the platform, getting them on the computer and on the internet, than we are with actual learning.”
All Rockingham County schools have set up Wi-Fi in their parking lots, allowing use of viable signals to students without at-home internet access.
County libraries have added evening hours to give kids and parents internet access. And churches around the county have opened doors to students and cobbled together computer labs where kids can log on.
While these solutions work in theory, some complications remain.
“That sounds all well and good until you try it,” said Martin, who works with the county’s Department of Economic Development.
“With the heat index and that type of thing, it’s not just going to be sitting somewhere outside to do it — you’re going to be sitting in your car. With a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old trying to remote learn in a vehicle, it’s not exactly the most ideal setup.”
Adjusting to new remote learning schedules proves especially tough for working parents like Martin and Sandie Wade.
Wade is a nurse who works 12-hour night shifts. Her family recently bought a Stoneville home and, like Martin, she assumed that internet access wouldn’t be a major issue.
Wade, though, says balancing work and helping her children with school has been challenging.
“I have three children: a middle schooler and two elementary age,” Wade said via email. “I’m having to take my kids to family members’ homes to allow internet access and stay up until my middle schooler’s last class at 1:45 p.m., then attempt four hours’ sleep before I have to head back in for another shift. The only other option we have is commute to a hotspot and force them to sit in my car until they’re finished.”
RCS Superintendent Rodney Shotwell says he recognizes these solutions are contingent on parents’ schedules and access to transportation. The school system hopes to have some more viable solutions in place soon.
“Our schools are aware of those students who might not have any access,” Shotwell said, “so we’re working on some alternate assignments and some possible different ways to deliver class materials to them.”
“This is new to all of us,” Shotwell said. “We just want what’s best for our kids, and if we can’t have them all in school at the same time, we’ve got to make sure to figure out a way that they’re not having any learning gaps.”