High-speed broadband isn’t a luxury for people living in rural North Carolina; it’s lifeblood. For hundreds of thousands of high school students, households, and workers, a fast internet connection is their only hope of enrolling in distance learning courses, accessing vital health care services, and applying for jobs.
“It [access to high-speed broadband] is a question of inclusion and justice,” says Jamie Lathan, the Dean of Distance Education and Extended Programs at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM). “It is definitely a fundamental thing,” says Vinay C. Reddy, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We should be thinking of it like food or water; a necessity of life,” he adds.
But there is good news for the rural population of North Carolina. We have partnered with MCNC, the nonprofit operator of the North Carolina Research and Education Network, to bring high-speed internet to several counties in western North Carolina and boost broadband access for nearly 30 Community Anchor Institutions, including public schools, community colleges, and hospitals.
Earlier this year, we finished building a high-capacity fiber route that connects our Forest City, North Carolina, data center with our data center in Georgia. By tapping into this new route, MCNC could upgrade its networks and enable these organizations to reliably provide vital education, telemedicine, and job-seeker services to many of the underserved rural communities in the state.
“Meta and MCNC are literally helping us wire our beautiful mountains, to provide high-speed access and opportunities that simply don’t exist in that neck of the woods,” says Thom Tillis, a U.S. Senator for North Carolina. He explains that high-quality broadband is “on a par with bridges and roads” in terms of vital infrastructure.
This is the latest in a series of investments we are making in infrastructure and networks in rural areas of the United States, which will boost connectivity in these underserved regions. For example, we have built data centers in North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, and we are joining up those facilities by either purchasing high-capacity fiber routes or building new ones ourselves. Those routes allow for the growth of smaller networks that provide broadband connectivity to rural areas.
Education: High-speed route to fast-track learning
In North Carolina, we provided MCNC with access to engineering and construction resources that allowed it to tap into this backbone and provide 10G broadband to K–12 school district hubs, as well as other schools across the state. Announced in January 2020, this partnership has now provided high-speed internet access to nearly 50,000 students at 76 schools in the region.
Those tens of thousands of young North Carolinians are now benefiting from greater connectivity to one another, their teachers, and their schools’ online resources. But they are also able to use the faster connection at their schools to enroll in distance learning courses, such as those offered by NCSSM. “Every student, regardless of their zip code, should have access to the special sauce that we have here at the NCSSM,” says Lathan.
NCSSM says the enhanced connectivity has allowed it to roll out its distance learning courses, which include advanced organic chemistry and multivariable calculus, to students at 26 new schools. And Lathan is looking forward to watching high-speed broadband transform the way that high schoolers learn. “We used to see students going to McDonald’s or getting on buses in the parking lot of Walmart to participate in a live, synchronous class because they didn’t have access to high-speed internet at their homes,” he says.
Lathan tells of a recent student who signed up for NCSSM genetics and biotechnology course on a whim, fell in love with the subject, and eventually won nationwide research contests and a scholarship to a university in North Carolina. “All of this began from access to courses that we taught,” he says. “The return on investment is absolutely there,” he adds.
Health care: Opening more doors to wellness
High-speed broadband will also significantly boost access to virtual health and telemedicine technology in the state’s rural communities, where several public hospitals have recently closed, says Reddy. “Getting these kinds of networks into these rural areas will help to close that digital divide.”
Lack of access to a fast, reliable broadband connection can have serious consequences for families who live in rural communities. “Let’s say a child needs antibiotics because they have an infection, but they can’t reach a doctor to have an assessment done via the phone or the video,” explains Reddy, a clinician. “That could mean a delay in care, which can lead to adverse outcomes.”
Broad access to telemedicine has become increasingly important during the era of COVID-19. “Once [the pandemic] hit, video visits or electronic consultations were the only way we could take care of our patients, especially the ones that needed it most,” says Reddy. He explains that the quality of the connection matters because clinicians rely on internet-based electronic medical records to register and treat their patients. “Resolution and stability are also super important to see the things we want to see, such as when it’s a skin complaint or a post-op wound check,” he says.
Our partnership with MCNC has enabled faster and more reliable connectivity, which ultimately promotes digital equity and inclusion and drives the digital economy. “A lack of connectivity is like a lack of any other infrastructure — if you don’t provide it, people are going to go somewhere else,” explains Senator Tillis. He adds, “This [partnership] is going to plant a seed for growth and opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”