When Three Isn't Enough: What Rural Connectivity Options Look Like in North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 413

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks to Tanna Greathouse, a Boone, North Carolina, resident operating an online business, Your Favorite Assistant, from home. Tanna shares her struggle with the lack of connectivity options in the area and what it means to have to sign up for three expensive, overlapping services — DSL, satellite, and mobile — for unreliable, slow, and high-latency Internet connections.

Tanna and Christopher talk about the struggle to perform even basic cloud-based productivity work and how this struggle has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. They talk about what things might look like if there were more local Internet choice and how the rise of telework will likely change how large and small businesses operate in the future.

We’ve covered North Carolina’s efforts at local Internet choice many times before. Find our “Why NC Broadband Matters” podcast series, co-produced with NC Broadband Matters, on the Community Broadband Bits podcast index. Episode topics include the homework gap, telehealth, and broadband mapping. Check out our other coverage of broadband in North Carolina.

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This show is 16 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Tanna Greathouse: The ability to telework, to do this all remotely, I think, is a huge epiphany for our entire country really. For any business owners, there's a lot of money that could be saved in a very uncertain environment.

Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 413 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks to Tanna Greathouse, a Boone North Carolina resident, who operates an online business from home that helps entrepreneurs streamline their work by taking care of administrative tasks. A lack of connectivity options in the area means that Tanna has to sign up for three overlapping services, paying over $300 a month for unreliable slow and high latency Internet connections.

Jess Del Fiacco: Tanna and Chris talk about the struggle to perform even basic cloud-based productivity work and how this struggle has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen business grow, but connectivity problems get worse. They talk about what things might look like if there were more local Internet choice and how the rise of telework will likely change how large and small businesses operate in the future. Now here's Christopher talking with Tanna Greathouse.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm here talking to Tanna Greathouse, who is just outside Boone, North Carolina, and runs her company, Your Favorite Assistant. And Tanna reached out to us because of real struggles using the Internet access that is available in that part. So Tanna, welcome to the show.

Tanna Greathouse: Hi, thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you to just first describe for people who aren't familiar with the heaven of Boone, North Carolina, what's it like?

Tanna Greathouse: Some people refer to it as "God's country". It's definitely a midsize tan. We have a wonderful university. It's actually the best university in the universe, upstate and the town of Boone itself. I guess the biggest economic engines that we have are the university and our tourism.


Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I don't know how much the audience overlaps, but there's a lot of people, I think who, know Boone because Appalachian state is one of the best football programs in the country for its class of university.

Tanna Greathouse: That would be 100% correct.

Christopher Mitchell: So what does your business do?

Tanna Greathouse: I actually help entrepreneurs become more profitable by being more efficient and helping them offload administrative and burdensome tasks so that they can focus on revenue generation.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, as someone who does operate a side business, I greatly appreciate that. No, and I can also appreciate how you're probably working with people who are located all over the United States.

Tanna Greathouse: Yeah. I do have a couple of long distance clients, but mostly I do serve the Boone area because we have a very special kind of person that lives here and I like working with those people.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So even then though, I'm presuming that a lot of the time you deal with them, it's probably over technology, some form of Internet access.

Tanna Greathouse: Yes. I would say that I am 98% remote.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of connectivity do you have in order to make sure that your business can operate to help others' businesses succeed?

Tanna Greathouse: It's funny, I'm not that far outside of town. I'm a hop, skip, and a jump away, so to speak. And currently, I have a total of two Internet connections and then a third option through my cell phone plan using cell phone data. The first connection that was available at my location was AT&T DSL. I still have that, but it is capped out at 1.5 meg and speed. Now for the average use, Internet browsing, checking basic emails, that works fine. Can you stream a lot? Not really. Downloading large files is impossible because it will time out if it takes too long. So because of that, especially since I do focus on some web design projects, that requires a much higher speed. So I actually added a second line for satellite Internet. And on paper, it seems like a really great option. You see average fees of 20, 25 meg.


Tanna Greathouse: And when you're dealing with 1.5 megs, you're thinking, "Wow, that's awesome." Unfortunately, satellite comes with latency, and the fact that it's sending a signal from the face of the earth into space, to a satellite and back again, that takes time. Your weather is going to impact that time. And sunny days are pretty good and cloudy, rainy days, like the monsoon season that we've had this week with, I think seven plus inches of rain in our area, has pretty much knocked out the satellite 100%. latency is also an issue because I can't do basic functions in QuickBooks online, Google Drive, because it requires being connected to the Internet. Even if you have offline, it still wants to reconnect, disconnect, reconnect, connect. So it can wreak havoc if you're trying to actually edit a document. I can talk all day about all of these issues.

Christopher Mitchell: And I would presume that a lot of these solutions also use a lot of capacity and you're somewhat limited on the satellite for how much you can use and not just over the whole month, but over 24 hours in a lot of cases.

Tanna Greathouse: Correct. The data restrictions that are tied to satellite plans, as well as cell phone plans are extremely prohibitive. I get 20 gigs of data with the satellite plan. I am usually through all of that by the end of the third week, on average every month. So I have to purchase additional gigs to help keep me at speed instead of being throttled at $3 a gig through satellite. And of course, cell is even more prohibitive and my provider does not offer unlimited plans for business connections.


Christopher Mitchell: What kind of money are you paying each month in order to keep your business going?

Tanna Greathouse: That's a great question. I am currently paying about $200 a month for the two different Internet connections. That's the DSL and the satellite. And then my cell phone plan where I have increased the data comes to about $125 a month. So it's over $300, but I'm trying to pay for some sort of connectivity and constantly switching between one of the three, depending on which is up at the moment. And I have used all three this week.

Christopher Mitchell: And one of the challenges that I think you face is your census block has people in it that have better service. And so the state and the federal government currently don't even necessarily know that you have a problem.

Tanna Greathouse: Yes, I'm pretty much invisible on the federal level. It would seem.

Christopher Mitchell: Now I'm curious, how have things changed? I mean, what you're describing seems well, it's like pre-COVID problems. I'm wondering if you've had additional challenges since then?

Tanna Greathouse: Well, yes, actually the demand for my business went up actually because of COVID-19 and quarantine. Some of the clients that I serve, a couple needed additional help trying to research and track down their options for EIDL loans and the TPP program and all of that good stuff. Other clients needed urgent updates for their website to make special announcements and offer different arrangements. And there was a lot of extra requests that came through for me during this time. So unlike our brick and mortar stores and restaurants, I actually saw an increase because I am an online business. So the irony of the period with quarantine and everything, it was quite astonishing.

Christopher Mitchell: And I get the sense also that more people are taking your situation seriously, now. Now people are more appreciating the importance of high quality conductivity. I mean, I think people would have said they understood it before, but they understand it now at a more visceral level.


Tanna Greathouse: I would say a lot of people have had a really shocking epiphany when it comes to having multiple people in the household for several days at a time and realizing just how limited their Internet, which could very well be better than mine, the limitations that are occurring because everyone's needing it more.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious. So when I racked my brain and I think about the things I've heard from state elected officials all around the country. For years, they've been saying they get it and that this is really important. And I'm curious, A, if you think that was true before and B, if you think this could change anything.

Tanna Greathouse: With all due respect with our elected officials, I have to say that they do not get it. I don't think they got it before. And I think if they're starting to get it now, I fear that they are still going to be influenced by our current Internet service providers that are actually contributing to this problem, in my opinion.

Christopher Mitchell: Those, I would guess in North Carolina are predominantly AT&T, CenturyLink, which is not your problem, but Charter Spectrum as well as a lot of the cable in the state.

Tanna Greathouse: Yes. So it's kind of funny. I do think a lot of companies kind of hold out for government assistance to cover the cost of laying down extra line or better line because precedents have been set. And I can't say that if I was running one of those companies that I also wouldn't be holding out for government to fit the bill because it is expensive. However, the problem with Watauga County in particular, I think relates directly to the tier system because we are technically classified as a least economically-distressed County in comparison with neighboring counties who are class at a higher economic distress have received from broadband grant funding and had better connections including fiber for years now.


Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think some of that relates to the lack of good data. If you're trying to classify an entire County, you're going to have both over and under classifications within that.

Tanna Greathouse: Yes. And we definitely have a significant gap in terms of coverage. Almost one whole half of Watauga County actually does not have decent Internet while the other half has fiber speeds available.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Well, you just have to switch to the other side of the County. It's so easy.

Tanna Greathouse: I just don't know if I could do that.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me ask you, is there anything else that we should touch on that would help capture your experience with Internet access and your business and the things that have changed recently?

Tanna Greathouse: Well, I will say that this period dealing with COVID-19 has been extraordinary, and I think people are going to have to really rethink the future of our economy and how it would operate because we don't know what the future holds. Being able to do more business and better business online, I think is going to be more and more important with people as time goes on over the next 12 months. And I think it's really important that our state and local leaders really start paying attention to the fact that this is the highway of our economic future.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I agree. And I would actually go one step further. I heard an interview with the Cheyenne mayor in Wyoming and she was saying, she felt that local governments would be changing significantly as they look at how much money they put into offices and buildings and things like that because she feels in their case that they are learning that there's things that they can do remotely as well. And so I think you're right. I don't think we can predict yet how this will change everything.

Tanna Greathouse: I think, didn't Facebook just that they were going to have some of their engineers and other well-rated employees starting to work from home permanently because of how much money they can save on commercial space?


Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And this was something that had been discussed, I don't know, many years ago, Best Buy, a Minnesota based company that I'm familiar with being in Minnesota, myself, they felt that they would save a lot of money on parking lots and office buildings and they did that. And then they had some change in leadership and I'm not sure that they had strong evidence to cut back on it. But I am curious to see, once we, ideally in a few years, I would hope we're back in a very normal life without worrying about this. We will see that continue. But several of the tech companies are, at the very least, encouraging their employees to work from home for the rest of this year and possibly longer.

Tanna Greathouse: Yeah. And with our country really facing the reality of a recession, the degree of which is still unknown at this time, but cutting costs is the first thing that most businesses will do to increase cash flow. And the ability to telework, to do this all remotely, I think is a huge epiphany for our entire country, really. For any business owners, small, medium size, even larger, there's a lot of money that could be saved in a very uncertain environment. And at this, point I do think that a lot of people are going to start looking at their own options about branching out on their own. Sometimes situations like this actually spur entrepreneurship.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And one of the things I like about that it's often people who are a little bit more advanced in age, people in their fifties who have had really good ideas, they may lose their job and this is their opportunity to go for it. So yeah, we can see all kinds of businesses coming along.

Tanna Greathouse: I'm excited about the potential if this country could actually see true broadband and more saturated, just getting it to everybody I think would absolutely transform our future. I believe that.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, we'll leave it there. And thank you so much, Tanna, for taking some time to share that with us.

Tanna Greathouse: Thanks so much for having me on.


Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Tanna Greathouse. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 413 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.