Stanly County Feels NC’s Urban-Rural Broadband Divide

Stanly County NC field

Rural Stanly County is an attractive place. But in terms of broadband, it is between a rock and a hard place. It sits between two soon-to-be Google Gigabit communities, with Charlotte to its west and Raleigh to its east, but as a rural county, it basically knows that Google is never coming their way. County officials worry that without Gigabit broadband, its young people and its businesses will leave for its more attractive Gigabit neighbors and it needs to do something about it. Because H129 sharply limits the authority of local governments, it must be more “creative” than ever before.

Even before Google, County officials realized almost two decades ago the economic development need for more advanced broadband than what was available in the community. Manufacturing companies and just-in-time health care institutions were asking what level of broadband was available for their services and the County’s answer was falling short of those business needs. “We need high speeds here but it is cost prohibitive. The urban areas have the density to justify the private sector capital outlay,” explained Andy Lucas, Stanly County’s Manager. In addition, “current broadband options are priced higher in the County than in its neighboring urban municipalities due to a lack of private sector competition.” The County approached Time Warner Cable and Windstream to ask for their help — could they just upgrade their existing infrastructure — but there was no interest.

With no other choice, the County began looking elsewhere. “Governments build infrastructure, that’s what we do,” noted Lucas. At the time, the County had the authority to partner with other public entities and build its own infrastructure, so the County began conversations with its largest municipality, the City of Albemarle, which operates a municipal electric utility and owns its own poles. The County, for its part, was primarily interested in building a middle mile network and driving down broadband prices, while significantly increasing capacity and options for reaching the internet via an open access network available to everyone, including the private carriers.

And then in 2011, H129 became law. Stanly County’s infrastructure project was put on pause. “It forced us to pause,” said Lucas. “H129 stopped us from doing it…it stalled us…but the local need was there….We have to find a new way to connect.”

Almost five years after passage of H129, the County continues to research any creative options possible. It built, rather than leased, a public safety tower realizing that aerial space like that is good real estate for multiple purposes. Connecting the tower with fiber could provide needed backhaul that would help private carriers and provide leasable connections for a private sector partner. It will help fill in the region’s middle mile gap. “Even Google could use it,” said Lucas.

So in the face of the urban Google threat and an even deeper economic and digital urban-rural divide on the horizon, Stanly County’s Manager pushes forward: “My job is to take care of the citizens and businesses in my community,” Lucas emphasized. “We need open access fiber; the incumbents have fiber but they won’t share. We want connections and will share…it’s critical for getting new economic development…I say let’s build for the future.”