The internet is no longer a luxury – it’s a necessity. Yet, high-speed internet remains a distant dream for many in rural North Carolina.
In this post, we’re sharing an exclusive interview with CloudWyze Founder and CEO, Shaun Olsen. Here, Olsen sheds light on the state of rural internet and the challenges of extending service in the Tar Heel State.
CloudWyze is bridging the digital divide. Read on as Olsen uncovers the complexities and triumphs of connecting communities in one of the most underserved regions of the United States.
North Carolina: A State of Progress
Q: What has been the historical progression of internet access in North Carolina’s rural communities and what are the current challenges facing the deployment of high-speed internet in those areas?
A: “North Carolina has and continues to be a leader in their focus to close the digital divide. However, being a pioneer has its challenges. One of the key issues has been quality data.
“For years, we’ve relied on dated federal maps that are plagued with misinformation. In the last few years, these maps have faced scrutiny and are getting better. North Carolina has been ahead of this process, which is good! But it also created competing data sets which, in turn, pitted grant programs against each other. This often led to duplicative funding or—in worse cases—no funding due to confusion. Since programs extend many years, we’re just now beginning to see the effects of these challenges.
“Besides data challenges is the competition. Large carriers continue to defend their territory by lobbying for speeds their networks can provide and protecting their investments while newer, innovative providers are pushing for higher speeds and faster deployments. All these factors must be considered as funds are released. By getting involved locally to understand the challenges, opportunities will present themselves and, with enough involvement locally, those who were once unserved will have service AND providers to choose from.”
Q: What lessons can be learned from successful rural internet initiatives in other states or countries?
A: “One of the most wonderful things about the digital inclusion space is we are all here for the same reason: to close the digital divide. Being involved in many associations and establishing relationships with other companies and providers in different markets has opened a world of opportunities for us. We’re able to share our ideas and practices while learning from other organizations.
“CloudWyze strongly believes in collaboration, which is why we partner with Kramden Institute to provide digital skills classes and free/affordable devices to our service counties.
“Looking at other states, Louisiana, Texas, and Michigan come to mind as leaders in digital inclusion. These three states have made significant strides toward bridging the digital divide at the state, county, and municipal levels. They have a strong presence of leaders and organizations that are coming together to ensure each leg of the digital inclusion stool (quality internet access, affordable devices, and digital literacy) is covered.
The Impact of High-Speed Internet in Rural Communities
Q: How does the digital divide in rural areas impact education, healthcare, and economic opportunities?
A: “Have you ever forgotten to bring your smart phone somewhere? You reach for it in your pocket to search for a recipe, to call your partner or to pull up your to-do list, but it’s not there. Now, imagine that feeling every day multiplied by 100.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a high school senior unable to complete your final research paper because you don’t have reliable internet access or a computer at home. Imagine your child has a chronic illness and needs monthly checkups, but the nearest hospital is an hour away. You can’t afford to take off work to drive them to their appointment, and the only reliable internet connection is at a local coffee shop with no privacy for a virtual doctor’s appointment. Or envision yourself stuck in a dead-end job, but you don’t have the education or training needed to switch careers and you don’t have the time to enroll in classes at the community college.
“These are the struggles that millions of Americans face each day. Closing the digital divide means access to basic conveniences many of us take for granted. Connectivity supports achieving financial freedom, better education, expanded health and medical resources, and building and strengthening relationships. CloudWyze believes in the connection of connectivity.”
Q: How does the lack of internet access in rural areas perpetuate economic disparities?
And what strategies can be implemented to make rural internet access more affordable for low-income households?
A: “Reliable access to the internet provides a plethora of opportunities for economic advancement, including continuing education, working remotely, selling digital products, getting a loan online, and so much more.
“Let’s put this in perspective: There are two people – we’ll call them Sue and Jo. Sue has quality internet access, digital skills, and a device. Jo, on the other hand, lives without reliable internet access but has the skills and a device. Both are going after the same job and the application process is entirely online. Sue can jump on their computer and apply for the job. Jo applies on their computer, making it through the application process. However, right after they click submit, their internet crashes and they lose all their progress. And this effect multiplies and multiplies, holding them back from getting that job and the next. It prevents them from getting a degree online or starting a digital business.
“Unfortunately, this disparity affects marginalized groups at a much higher rate, which further impedes their ability to get ahead in this world.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which offers a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for qualifying households and $75 off for households on qualifying tribal lands, is a key factor in keeping internet access affordable. However, ACP funding is expected to run out in spring of 2024. We strongly encourage everyone, whether you directly benefit from the ACP or not, to advocate for ACP continuation.”
Q: How can ISPs ensure that their services support the unique educational needs of students in rural areas?
A: “As stated in our mission, CloudWyze is a proponent of building strong relationships. Through our relationships with our service counties, we have established relationships with the school districts, colleges and community colleges, and other learning establishments around the counties. This allows us to hear directly from the stakeholders what needs to be addressed when it comes to students. Additionally, we partner with organizations like Kramden Institute to offer digital skills classes for anyone in the community.”
Q: How does the future of work and telecommuting influence the demand for rural internet services?
A: “The option to work remotely drastically increases opportunities for those in rural communities. Internet access enables them to get jobs outside of their area that may be higher paying, have a flexible schedule, or have better benefits. It also promotes financial freedom, allowing people to have a side hustle or passive income at the touch of a button. Not to mention, it is a game-changer for many people with disabilities who may not be willing or able to participate in a traditional workplace.”
Q: What roles do local governments and community organizations play in advocating for and supporting rural internet access?
A: “Anchor institutions are essential advocates and supporters of rural internet access. From county commissioners to local libraries to food pantries, these stakeholders have the power to influence change in the community.
“Presuming these leaders and institutions have their patrons’ best interests in mind, they have the obligation to advocate for the best broadband technologies available. Libraries are an absolute powerhouse for accessibility in all aspects, and many of them have programs for digital skill-building, assistance for ACP applications, and even simply free internet and device access.”
Q: How can ISPs better engage with rural communities to understand and meet their specific needs?
A: “It is crucial to the success of an ISP to create and maintain strong relationships with the counties, municipalities, and residents it serves.
“CloudWyze not only partners with the counties we serve, but we also make it a point to be involved in these communities on a personal level. From hiring local technicians and sales representatives to sponsoring festivals and events, or simply supporting a local businesses, we take a grassroots approach to gaining trust and establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with our customers. Additionally, we have a dedicated team of professionals ready to help our customers or future customers with any concern that arises.”
Funding for Rural High-Speed Internet Projects
Q: What role can public-private partnerships play in expanding rural internet access?
A: “Public-private partnerships are essential for expanding internet access in rural areas. We would not have accomplished as much as we have without the support of the counties and municipalities that we work with. They are some of our best advocates and instill a sense of trust in the community. Since residents are familiar with their county officials, they act as an olive branch, ensuring everyone is heard and concerns are addressed.”
Q: What innovative funding models or investment strategies can be used to support rural internet projects?
A: “Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are the best way to fund these projects. They are a perfect vehicle for fiber-based broadband infrastructure because the assets live in the communities they serve, and everyone gains from them.
“By having the public involved, they can better understand how private capital invests and, together, they can pave the way for mutual success. And in some cases, they provide well-needed infrastructure for the government entities to either replace or augment their existing networks.”
Q: How do regulatory frameworks and government policies affect the expansion of rural internet services in North Carolina?
A: “On a local level, permitting is one of the main reasons for delay in broadband deployment. The process of obtaining permits is lengthy and often requires several stages of review and approval. On the state and federal level, the grant process is quite a heavy lift for small providers like CloudWyze.
“As many providers and digital inclusion advocates have spoken out about, the red tape of the matching funds requirement for nearly every grant is nearly or completely unobtainable for most smaller providers. These requirements have come under a lot of scrutiny lately as they result in grants being awarded to large and/or incumbent providers that may not necessarily have the best technology or the customers’ best interest at heart.
“Thankfully, several grants have amended/are amending the requirements to allow alternatives, like letter of credit waivers, for qualifying providers. Additionally, the grants process can be a large lift for smaller providers, many of which don’t have a dedicated grants team or the funds to outsource their grant application process and management to a third party.”
Q: How do infrastructure limitations in rural areas affect the feasibility and cost of providing internet services?
A: “The lack of readily available broadband infrastructure in an area drives the cost of deployment up to an amount which is simply not able to be funded by private capital alone. Therefore, it requires intervention by local, state, or federal funding to close the gap.
“While there are many programs now available to help fund these areas, the process can be lengthy. And even when the funding is awarded, the construction periods can be years under the best of conditions.”
Q: How can the success of rural internet initiatives be measured and evaluated over time?
A: “Strictly looking at data, we can measure success by looking at subscriber counts, ACP participation, and FCC maps. From a personal point of view, it is crucial to get feedback from the communities being served. Doing so ensures all aspects of connectivity are covered and there is a plan in place to continuously maintain or improve. This piece is so important because even if the data shows that people are connected or there is a provider available in that area, it is not necessarily accurate.
“For example, the FCC map may show that an address is being serviced, but if you knock on that person’s door, they might tell you that the service is an outdated technology that doesn’t support their current connectivity needs.”
The Environment & Rural Internet
Q: What are the environmental considerations and challenges when building internet infrastructure in rural areas?
“Any sort of construction has an environmental impact. CloudWyze strives to create minimal disruption to the environment both in our fiber network construction and our fixed wireless network upfitting. In our fiber conduit laying and drop processes, we ensure our crews restore the ground and surrounding environment as closely to how it was prior to construction if not better. And for fixed wireless, we share tower space with cell carriers and other providers, preventing the need for additional towers to be erected. We also avoid cutting trees and other foliage unless absolutely necessary to get the end consumer the best service possible.
Q: What is your vision for the future of rural internet connectivity in North Carolina, and how does your company plan to contribute to this vision?
A: “To say we dream of every North Carolinian having high-speed, reliable internet access is an understatement. It is not a dream; it is a vision that we and like-minded organizations and leaders will achieve in the near future.
“CloudWyze is committed to bringing the best available technology to everyone in our current and future service areas. We will continue to establish and maintain partnerships with key players in digital inclusion as we work to bridge the digital divide.”
Partner with CloudWyze for High-Speed Internet
The point is clear: Olsen and his team of local experts are helping rural communities get connected to the people and opportunities that matter. Whether you’re interested in bringing high-speed internet to your area or you need internet for your home or business, the folks at CloudWyze are ready to help.
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