“A ‘Digital Caste System’: Orange County Broadband Task Force Seeks to Address County Internet Inequality

The Orange County Broadband Task Force continued to update plans to improve internet services in the county, according to a Feb. 1 news release.

The task force, which began meeting in March 2021, was organized to expand high-speed Internet access to 5,200 homes in underserved parts of Orange County.

The goal is to ensure that four or more people in the same household can use the Internet simultaneously, whether to take online courses, work remotely or access important services, such as telemedicine.

The plan to expand internet access was made possible by the Orange County Board of Commissioners, which committed $5 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for the construction of a fiber optic network throughout the county.

County Commissioner and task force member Sally Greene said he wanted family members to be able to work online simultaneously.

“It will help people apply for jobs, stay in touch with family, participate in civic life and more,” she said.

The working group

County Commissioner Earl McKee was the first to call for the task force. Members include Greene, Durham Technical Community College’s Equity Compliance Officer, Victoria P. Deaton, Chapel-Hill Carrboro Municipal Schools Authority, and the Orange County Community.

According to McKee, the task force studied several methods to tackle inequalities on the Internet.

“We knew we had to do something,” he said. “The conversation evolved into two different paths, either wirelessly – which we had already tried via open broadband several years ago – or by connecting fiber to the home.”

McKee said attempts to implement wireless broadband in Orange County have always been hampered by topography and tree cover. This led to their decision to build a fiber network.

Currently, the task force is reviewing four proposals submitted by vendors interested in building the fiber network.

McKee said a subgroup of the task force determines which vendor they should recommend to the board. He said he expects the subgroup to make a decision in the coming weeks and the BOCC to take action this year.

“It’s my absolute intention to have it in place, in the future, by the summer or this fall,” McKee said.

Fighting inequalities on the Internet

The Broadband Initiative is a map of Orange County homes with underserved Internet access. According to the initiative, the majority of homes with poor internet access are located in the north and west areas of the county, which are farthest from the urban centers of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

Additionally, these areas — such as Cedar Grove — generally have lower median household incomes, according to data compiled by DATAUSA. Thus, an area in South Chapel Hill has a median household income of $129,323, while an area in Cedar Grove has a median household income of $65,772.

Deaton said marginalized people are disproportionately affected by poor internet access.

“When broadband doesn’t reach certain areas, those households are at a disadvantage, and those households are often marginalized people to begin with — low-income families, minorities, older people,” she said.

The impact of digital inequality can also be significant for students.

“We created, without giving broadband or making it available to everyone, this kind of digital caste system,” said CHCCS board chairman Deon Temne. “When one student can download the lesson and the other is online or has no access at all, that’s where the inequity comes in.”

Deaton said COVID-19 has made digital inequalities much more visible in daily life. If left unresolved, it will continue to impact Orange County long after the economic recovery subsides.

Temne also said COVID-19 has increased the challenges faced by some students who struggle to get secure and stable internet. While he discussed CHCCS’s efforts to address this issue, such as the use of hotspots, he noted that there is little schools can do to address these challenges.

“Hotspots allow for some speed, but we still have that inequity,” Temne noted. “I would prefer to see true broadband in all areas.”

Ultimately, Deaton said the fight for fairness on the internet is the one that must be fought — and it’s better to do it now rather than later.

“It’s about caring about your neighbors and your community,” she said in an email. “Until we stop and fix this, we’re just kicking the box.”

@harrisonggummel | @DTHCityState

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