Co-op member-owner blogs how Roanoke Connect helps close rural Internet divide
Excerpted from Oct. 2, 2018 blog post, The Bandwidth Gap, originally published in ChurchMag and authored by ChurchMag proprietor and Electric Cooperative member-owner, Eric Dye. Article and photos reprinted with permission.
While living in a small town in Italy for several years, my family regularly struggled to have solid Internet speed. When we moved to a larger city in the central part of the country, we assumed we would have access to a better quality of Internet access, with the speeds reasonably high enough to do something as simple as watching a YouTube video without the playback stopping, or “buffering,” every few seconds..
With bated breath, we waited; looking forward to faster video download times and the ability to Skype with our friends and family overseas without the awkward delays and heavy pixilation. We could hardly wait!
And then we found that the Internet speeds in central Italy delivered an equal, and sometimes worse, experience than those in our former small town.
Throughout our seven years in Italy, I worked online. I tried my best to do my work efficiently and our family tried our best to stay connected with friends and family back home in the United States. Needless to say, the limited bandwidth made this entirely frustrating.
But, we were moving back to the United States — the land of free flowing bandwidth! The days of slow Internet service, as slow as 2-3 megabytes per second (commonly referred to as “Mbps”) finally be over?
Before moving into our new home here in Gates County almost two years ago, the large company providing our telephone service was also the primary provider of Internet service to the area. The company assured me their service would offer me Internet speeds of 10 Mbps!
While this may not seem like much to some, it excited our family to pieces.
The entire family would be able to enjoy an Internet connection and we could give a try to Netflix and Hulu and all of those cool online things that came to pass while we lived overseas.
What we didn't understand, however, is that we were told the maximum possible speeds. This detail was buried in the fine print. It’s the kind of very little but very important detail that we all so quickly “click to accept.”
As it turned out, our connection speed with the phone company’s Internet service was slower than what we had in Italy. This is what our actual speed looked like:
I was crushed. We were crushed. We had downgraded from our Italian connection, but there was a flitter of hope on the horizon.
This rural area we moved to in North Carolina is served by electric cooperative that provides power to the area. The mission for the Roanoke Electric Cooperative started 80 years ago when they first formed. At that time, urban areas and even small towns had large power companies that provided electricity to residents. Meanwhile, rural areas and farmers were left without the wonders of electricity, as it was not in an electric company’s most profitable interest to provide electricity to this smaller base of Americans.
By forming a co-op, everyone in the area became invested in the organization — all becoming member-owners of the company. In fact, that’s what we are still called to this day – Roanoke Electric Cooperative member-owners.
Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves in a similar situation with the Internet! Our rural communities need and deserved to have access to the same quality Internet service that large companies willingly offer in urban areas of the state. Yet, while it is physically possible to bring higher Internet speeds to our more remote region, for-profit companies have no incentive to upgrade and build-up an infrastructure to provide Internet services to such a small customer base.
So as history repeats itself, the same spirit that lead to the formation of the Roanoke Electric Cooperative, birthed Roanoke Connect. By using the power lines and access points already provided via the electric grid, the co-op engineered a brilliant system to deliver fiber optic-based internet to any of its member-owners who wanted to subscribe to the service.
We are happy to say, that as of yesterday, my family is the first Roanoke Electric Co-op member-owner in our county to have Roanoke Connect Internet service installed. We are now enjoying these joyous speeds:
Our home has been like Christmas morning. We immediately updated our smartphones and computers and we watched videos without buffering — in high definition, too! And finally, I just finished a much more delightful work day as all of the software and apps I use and rely on every day worked smoothly, flawlessly, and fast too!
For almost two years I have been active in following, supporting, and encouraging those working on bringing Roanoke Connect to my area.
Roanoke Electric Co-op member-owner Eric Dye is an editor and podcast host. He has been a writing for ChurchMag since 2010. Dye lives with his family and works out of his home office in Gates County, North Carolina.