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Charlotte’s broadband deserts reflect a familiar pattern

If you live or work in Charlotte, there’s a distinct possibility your broadband access is less than satisfactory. But you have options.

A familiar wedge-and-crescent pattern of economic inequality also applies to broadband internet connections, slowing down access to development and educational opportunities in wide swaths of the city.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission reveals that percentages of people and businesses in “wedge” areas of south Charlotte often have access to broadband at rates three times higher than people in “crescent” areas.

Janelle Travis, a telecommunications consultant, supports companies operating in the Atando business park area between Statesville Road and Graham Street, just north of uptown Charlotte.

In a Broadband Desert? Take These Five Steps
1. Contact your Internet service provider
2. Share your story on Digital Charlotte
3. Small business? Notify the Chamber of Commerce
4. Notify local and state elected officials
5. Share your story with social and mainstream media

“We haven’t been able to find a good solution for high-speed internet for several clients in that area,” Travis said recently. “When you don’t have high-speed it slows down your business, both incoming and outgoing, and so we’ve had a real frustration trying to get service there.”

FCC data collected from broadband service providers shows that between 21 and 40 percent of households in the area of Travis’ clients have downstream access to internet speeds of 3 megabits per second (mbps) or higher. Data for small businesses is not collected, but is believed to be similar. The federal government defines high-speed internet as 25 mbps. In contrast, about 1 mile to the east in the NoDa area, between 61 and 80 percent of households have 3 mbps access. And in the “wedge” area of south Charlotte, between 81 and 100 percent of households have 3 mbps downstream access.

Her clients currently make do with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service that frequently slows down or drops out. DSL relies on wired telephone lines.

The Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington, DC, released a nationwide map of socioeconomic status in 2015. In Charlotte, the bottom 10 percent of neighborhoods are located in a crescent west, north and east of uptown. The top 10 percent is in the city’s southeast wedge. A similar pattern emerges for economic mobility and educational opportunities.

Other research by the Benton Foundation, a media and telecommunication advocacy organization, indicates that central planning, broad involvement by community members, and city-specific research are necessary to address online inequities in U.S. cities. National maps that detail local broadband capability are available from Form 477 data compiled by the FCC, and from Mississippi State.

People and businesses with unsatisfactory broadband connectivity have opportunities to lobby their case with multiple organizations, said Bruce Clark, Charlotte’s digital inclusion project manager.

“If you find yourself in a broadband desert, there’s great value in your individual advocacy,” Clark said. “What’s really going to move the needle in many ways are the personal stories from individuals or businesses who are impacted. The business that’s trying to increase their revenue so that they can hire more employees in this community or the single mom who doesn’t have to take her child to the library every night and can spend that time at home in the safety of their home and their child can have seven more hours of learning. In those individual stories, the ability to collect those stories and share those stories and to put them in front of the internet service providers and the government officials and the chambers of commerce to really compel them to lean in on this problem is critical to our community’s ability to ultimately solve the digital divide.”

The State of North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office is gathering information on unserved and underserved broadband areas. A survey is available.