Lack of reliable high-speed internet access is a persistent problem in rural North Carolina, but small broadband companies are springing up across the state to meet the needs of underserved communities.
On a 30-acre farm in Duplin County, Ronald Simmons tends to his hogs. Since 2012, he’s run Master Blend Family Farms, a small scale operation where pigs forage among the trees in wooded pastures. In addition to pork, he grows corn, cabbage, watermelons and other produce, and sells them all from his Kenansville farm store.
Beyond the farm, Simmons relies on social media and online sales to get his products to retail customers and restaurants across the state.
“Technology allows an entrepreneur to have a better opportunity than how it was ten or twenty years ago,” he said.
But not all farmers in North Carolina have access to high-speed internet. While most of the state enjoys download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, counties in the west and the southeast fall far short of that minimum goal.
That’s a hindrance for farmers in those areas, just as digital agriculture is on the rise. From monitoring soil moisture, to evaluating land using drones, to guiding a tractor with GPS, farmers are using online data collection and analytics to increase efficiency.
Jason Ward is an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State. He says lack of internet access puts these tools out of reach for some.
“The decision-making tools, the technology tools that are so common now in a production [agriculture] environment, really rely on that piece, on that connectivity,” said Ward.
Susan Myers and her husband live in Pink Hill, a town of about 600 in Lenoir County. Two years ago they saw the need for high-speed internet access in their community, but recognized their area was too sparsely populated to attract investment from large telecom companies. They launched Eastern Carolina Broadband to bring internet access to underserved rural areas. The company has expanded to serve six communities, and is exploring options in three more.
Myers notes there’s plenty of demand for broadband in southeastern North Carolina.
“We have a waiting list of 678 customers,” she said. “They want the internet yesterday, and it takes time to do it.”
Eastern Carolina Broadband delivers its service using fixed wireless technology that runs a wire up a pole to a transmitter, then beams broadband to a small antenna at a user’s home. The company has installed equipment on water towers, grain elevators, and anywhere up high, even at the top of a gumball tree.
“This is a way to use something that’s already there to get internet to the people that don’t have it,” said Myers.
Eastern Carolina Broadband is one of several similar companies cropping up in North Carolina using fixed wireless broadband to serve rural regions. Open Broadband is working in a dozen counties across the state, and will launch a pilot project in Orange County in April.
Both Eastern Carolina Broadband and Open Broadband are exploring how to bring service to wider parts of Duplin County, a region where nearly thirty percent of residents lack access to high-speed internet service.
Ronald Simmons says he’s fortunate to have a reliable connection at his Duplin farm. He’s used it to grow a successful business, and was named the 2018 small farmer of the year by North Carolina A&T University. He hopes others in his area can get access to similar opportunities.
“We got to have it," said Simmons. "There’s no way Duplin County can keep up with what’s going on around the world if we got cut off through those channels."