By Rose Hoban

When William Pitt gets an EMS call, it comes to his phone in the form of a readout printed in red lettering on a black background.

“This is actually showing me which station is responding to the call, where the location is, the cross streets,” said Pitt, who’s been a volunteer first responder in the Beaufort County town of Washington for 25 years.

He demonstrated more from his Active911 call displayed on his iPhone. He could tell the cross streets, the device gave him a map of the call and details about the caller, and the level of urgency for the response.

“You don’t have to guess anymore,” he said.

man shows off a red lettered readout on his cell phone
Washington city council member William Pitt demonstrates the read out from Active911 on his cell phone. Pitt, who is an EMS first responder, was in Raleigh to urge lawmakers to improve North Carolina’s rural broadband services, which he argued will help emergency services. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Pitt was doing more than just showing off his technology. He was making a point about rural broadband. Pitt, who is also the on the city council of Washington, in Beaufort County, was at the legislature to make a plea to improve the state of rural broadband in North Carolina.

“This is by broadband. This eliminates you carrying a pager, carrying a walkie-talkie around with you,” he said.

But without broadband and cell phone access, the device is useless. So he also carries the pager and walkie-talkie.

He was among a group brought to Raleigh by the North Carolina League of Municipalities to encourage members of the legislature to pass the Bright Futures Act, which would smooth the ability for rural towns and cities to partner with private internet and cable providers to get broadband into the far reaches of the state.

“If you don’t have internet access, you might as well not have electricity,” Pitt said.

White spaces

Outside of the state, people might see North Carolina’s universities and industries along the I-85/ I-40  corridors and think of an advanced urban economy, but the state has 3.2 million rural residents, second only to Texas for the number of rural residents. And 95 percent of North Carolinians who don’t have access to broadband live in those rural areas, a total of more than 600,000 people, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“That federal data is probably underreporting the scope of the lack of service,” said Erin Wynia, governmental counsel for the League of Municipalities. “We’re also concerned about the many residents and business owners … where they may have some level of service but it’s simply inadequate for their needs, it’s not fast enough.”

During a press conference at the legislative building on Wednesday, League President and Jacksonville Mayor Pro Tempore Michael Lazzara said he nearly moved his graphics and sign making business from town.


“As our business continued to grow, our needs continued to grow with that. In order exchange large formatted files, CAD files that are required to send back and forth with potential consumers,” he said. “It took us a year and a half to get fiber to our building, I was on verge of moving our company, which is in an excess of a million dollars.”

Red light

In 2008 the city of Wilson launched Greenlight, it’s own internet community broadband service that has speeds of 50mbps both for uploads and downloads for about $40 per month, with a deep discount for people in public housing.

But that didn’t sit well with the state’s large telecommunications companies who backed a 2011 bill that prohibited other cities from following Wilson’s path.

Seventeen-year Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones said her town had been considering something similar to Wilson’s plan, but when the legislature passed the Level Playing Field Act, she dropped it.

Currently, she doesn’t have broadband in her downtown and recently the town decided to pay to pull fiber lines into town facilities on its own.

“We have talked with the [internet service] providers and they’re not interested in putting it in places that are not affluent,” Jones said. “They only want where they can make money.”

In their current measure, members of the League are pushing for the state to remove legal limitations on public-private partnerships to allow for municipalities to provide the infrastructure, and then contract with large telecommunications companies to provide the internet services.

The mayors argue they’re already building infrastructure in the form of water and sewer lines. It wouldn’t take more for them to lay conduit with unconnected fiber-optic cable, called “dark fiber” as they do the digging.

“If we have opportunities to put in ‘dark fiber’ we’re doing it,” said Lazzara. “It’s critical infrastructure, not a luxury.”

nurse shows off computer equipmenet
Donna Hill, emergency department manager at Columbus Regional Healthcare Services, shows off the unit’s telestroke unit. The equipment has a trackpad, monitor and remotely controlled movable camera which can be used to examine patients with suspected stroke symptoms. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Link to telehealth growth

Health care advocates have been pushing for more broadband to help people connect with their providers.

Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center head Kim Schwartz said one of her doctors lives in the woods near their Ahoskie clinic and can’t work on his charts from home, he’s only got dial up.

But Schwartz worried more how the lack of internet access affects more intangible contributors to health, things such as education and jobs.

“It’s really a multi-pronged approach, economics, health care and education, those components all affect each other,” she said.

Rural hospital leaders spent time last week talking to lawmakers about all of the “tele” services they’re providing to patients during a meeting of a committee aimed at increasing access to care for rural residents.

The remote medical offerings they described include services like telepsychiatry, remote stroke and other neurological assessments, even infectious disease identification, all done remotely.

But those services need broadband in order to be effective.

“We do pretty some innovative things, a lot through partnerships,” said Scotland Medical Center head Greg Wood, who called the tele- activities a “key to success.”

“Ensure that there’s access to broadband across the state. We have portions of our state that don’t have access to broadband capabilities today,” Joann Anderson, head of Southeastern Regional Medical Center told the same committee. “And I can tell you today, for rural health care, access is probably going to be through a virtual model.

“You can’t do it unless you have broadband capabilities. You’ve got to be able to do it over the internet,” Anderson said. “so we need to make sure that across the state we’ve got broadband available for telehealth and virtual services.”

Correction: This article originally stated William Pitt was mayor of Washington. He is actually a member of the city council.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...