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“In the rural areas, the government is not coming to help you. The big companies are not coming to help you. You have to help yourself.” 

Susan Myers, co-founder, Eastern Carolina Broadband

From the metal tower built above the sandy soil of Deep Run, North Carolina, 21st Century connectivity is making its way to some of this state’s most rural homes.

Attached to the grain bin at pork producer J.C. Howard Farms, a small wireless broadband internet transmitter beams a high-speed signal to parts of Lenoir County. The transmitter is owned by Eastern Carolina Broadband, a company started last year by social entrepreneurs concerned with access to high-speed internet service in Lenoir, Jones, and Duplin counties.

“If we don’t step up and do it ourselves, our community, our school children, our farmers fall behind,” says Susan Myers, one of the company’s three co-founders. “Even though I live in a town of only 600, I have access to high-speed internet and hadn’t really thought about that out in the rural areas that did not.”

Myers and her husband, Al Rachide, launched the company in 2017 with another business partner, Rodney Scott.

Eastern Carolina Broadband technicians adjusting a transmitter on top of a local grain elevator.

“The farmers need this internet for precision technology.”

Partnering with the state Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, the trio conducted surveys of residents in the three counties who live within an 18-mile radius of the town of Pink Hill. “It’s on the corner of three counties, so it kinda gets left out,” Myers says of the town. The survey found that 60 percent of the respondents’ children and a majority of the farmers who participated did not have adequate internet. “The farmers need this internet for precision technology,” she says, meaning a lack of broadband service is as much an economic crisis as an educational or social one.  

Myers, who was born 85 percent deaf in rural Mississippi, says she has a particular appreciation for the way broadband access can transform opportunity for people. “Technology has changed my life,” she says. “It continues to make my life better and better.”

“We’re all just nerds and we decided, well, if nobody is going to do it, we’ll do it ourselves.”

As with many other rural communities throughout North Carolina, the residents of Lenoir, Jones, and Duplin counties feel overlooked by major broadband providers and by government assistance. “There’s not enough money—it’s not profitable enough—to lay fiber and go into all these areas,” Myers says. “In the rural areas, the government is not coming to help you. The big companies are not coming to help you. You have to help yourself.”

Based on the results of the survey, Myers, Rachide, and Scott knew they had to take action. “We’re all just nerds and we decided, well, if nobody is going to do it, we’ll do it ourselves,” she says.

Because fiber optic cable is so expensive to procure, install, and activate, Eastern Carolina Broadband chose to offer wireless broadband—which is not the same as WiFi. Wireless broadband requires transmitters, such as the one at J.C. Howard Farms, which beam a signal to receivers installed on individual customers’ homes. The receivers look similar to smaller satellite television dishes and are typically affixed to a home’s roofline. Eastern Carolina Broadband struck deals to rent space for transmitters on all the county-owned water towers in Duplin and Jones counties, as well as grain elevators in all three counties. The company is in discussions with other rural counties east of I-95, with the long-term goal of helping “anyone in that area who doesn’t have an existing (Wireless Internet Service Provider),” Myers says. “They can’t wait.”

A technician prepares gear for installation at the Eastern Carolina Broadband offices.

“It’s very hard to build a business model or to help your community if you’re only able to help one in five customers that want your service.”

But there have been plenty of challenges for the startup.

Much of the wireless broadband technology that exists is based on line-of-sight technology, which means the signal must have a relatively unobstructed path from the transmitter to the receiver. Trees—big stands of longleaf pines, for example—can obstruct the path, making service spotty in some areas. “We want to do it right and we want to put the right equipment up,” Myers says, so the company is exploring alternatives.

The founders learned of a similar venture in Maine called Redzone Wireless. It started out using wireless broadband technology and was able to serve just one in five customers who wanted service. Today, the company uses LTE technology—much like the data networks smartphones use in urban areas—and can serve four in five potential customers because the signal can go through trees. “That’s more expensive technology,” Myers says, but it is likely the best way to serve customers. “It’s very hard to build a business model or to help your community if you’re only able to help one in five customers that want your service.”

An Eastern Carolina Broadband WiFi receiver outside a Lenior County home.

“It is frustrating that an agency or group is hogging the spectrum even though they are no longer using it when there are so many rural people and farmers who need it.”

Eastern Carolina’s service area will be the beta test site for a new, Canadian company that is attempting to offer LTE technology to rural areas. That might lead the company to install LTE transmitters throughout the three counties it currently serves, and expand its offerings to more people.

Another challenge the company has faced is the broadband spectrum available to wireless internet service providers in North Carolina. Right now, Eastern Carolina uses what’s known as non-licensed spectrum to carry its signal to homes. There are other options available, many of which are stronger and more reliable, including the 2.5 GHz spectrum. Nationally, this spectrum is known in part as Educational Broadband Services, and is often managed by state college and university systems. The Federal Communications Commission has allowed states to rent out the 2.5 GHz spectrum to broadband providers to help serve rural areas with wireless broadband. (In most states, the 2.5 GHz spectrum is not used by universities because they have installed fiber on their campuses; such is the case in North Carolina.)

Myers says Eastern Carolina has been unable to convince the state’s universities to lease out the 2.5 GHz spectrum for that purpose. “It is frustrating that an agency or group is hogging the spectrum even though they are no longer using it when there are so many rural people and farmers who need it.”

The coverage map in the Eastern Carolina Broadband offices include 3D-printed grain silos, representing points across the county where wireless broadband internet transmitter are placed on local silos.

“We could make a lot more money putting our money in the stock market. This is a social investment.”

The final challenge Eastern Carolina Broadband has encountered is the lack of funding to help startups serve rural areas with high-speed broadband. What few grant programs exist can often be prohibitively expensive for early stage companies to apply. “We haven’t found any kind of grant or any kind of government help out there at all,” Myers says. “There are areas that are so rural, it just doesn’t make economic sense—even for us, as a startup—to go into. The equipment is so expensive.”

Yet she and her co-founders continue their work undeterred, fueled by the people they serve instead of the profits they could make. “We could make a lot more money putting our money in the stock market,” she says. “This is a social investment.”