Surry County residents without access to high-speed internet aren’t going to benefit much from a grant accepted by Windstream Communications last week to expand its service to rural areas.
On Aug. 5, the internet service provider accepted $174,895,478 from the Connect America Fund. Of the $1,952,081 slated for North Carolina, only $215 is headed to Surry County.
Data from the Federal Communications Commission says that 11 percent of the county’s population, all in rural areas, is without broadband access.
Dubbed the “digital divide,” 53 percent of the population in rural areas nationwide are without access. The grant program, funded through universal service fees levied on phone bills, is aimed at closing that divide by helping providers afford expanding service to areas where the sparse population otherwise wouldn’t support its cost.
The Communications Act of 1934 made universal service mandatory, aimed then at voice service. In 2011, the FCC modernized the program to apply to broadband.
Part of Phase II of the Connect America Fund, providers have until Aug. 27 to accept the grants.
Century Link is eligible for a grant where $10,008,387 will go to North Carolina areas, including $33,179 for Surry County.
Providers who accept the funds must guarantee minimum speeds of 10Mb download and 1Mb upload and have the service fully implemented by 2020. These improvements will require the company’s own investment.
Surry County has a lower percentage without access than the national and state averages, and several nearby counties. Stokes, Wilkes and Yadkin counties have about 18 percent lacking access.
But while the numbers here look better, that doesn’t help the 5,600 Surry County residents who can’t get on the internet.
Many of them head to the library, says Cindy Brannock, branch librarian at the Dobson Central Library, for all the same reasons that drove the FCC to address the digital divide.
“Our computers are used widely because people don’t have internet at home,” Brannock said. “They can’t even get internet, let alone at high speeds.”
Brannock said the number of people using the library’s free Wifi has surged since they started offering it about five years ago. This year, in July alone, 1,635 people logged on.
“We have people use it of course for Facebook, but a lot of people come in to do resumes and job applications. For Wayne Farms, all their jobs are online,” she said. “People print airline tickets and Surry Community College students use it, homeschoolers come in to do online classes.”
And public school students as well.
“We have a lot of students that the school offered laptops to but they don’t have internet at home,” Brannock said.
Todd Tucker, president of Surry County Economic Development Partnership, said broadband access, specifically affordable broadband, is crucial for economic development.
“Every business needs access to high speed internet,” he said. “It is crucial for the entrepreneur in his home, businesses out in the county, and for big business.”
While businesses considering moving to Surry County have not been deterred specifically because of lack of access, Tucker said affordability of service has been a factor.
Terri is a staff reporter and can be reached at 415-4734.