The Internet Is Not Done Changing Our Lives

Recently, our home in rural Davie County got a 2 Gig fiber circuit. It was not a special order, just a $99.95 midrange consumer offering of Zirrus, our local telephone cooperative. I know people in California who would give their left arm for connectivity like what I now have across the road from acres of soybeans. One of my co-workers who works out of San Diego asked if I was going to run a data center out of our house? I know one thing, having my television connected to Ethernet is way better than having it on wireless.

Around thirty years ago, I first got on the Internet. The early Internet brought little new functionality. Email had been part of our lives for years. We used a proprietary system called AppleLink. Most of our big customers used the same system. The switch to standards based email that allowed us to communicate with anyone who had an email address was the first of many radical changes headed our way driven by the Internet

It was impossible in the early nineties to predict how deeply the Internet would become intertwined with our lives. Our family was destined to be full of early adopters. My son gave me my own Internet domain in the mid-nineties. My first webpages were online well before the century closed out. Not long afterwards, I helped create Apple’s online store for federal customers in 2002. Online shopping was something of a novelty then. By 2004, I was regularly blogging. Those baby steps were just the tips of my personal Internet iceberg. Shortly after his college graduation my son was managing networks on multiple continents from the heart of the Internet, Northern Virginia.

Even with all that early preparation and a career in technology, I am not sure that even I appreciated how quickly it is coming and perhaps how unprepared we are for the Internet driven changes which are accelerating even in my little piece of the Piedmont. In Davie County which by most measures is about as far away from the data centers and urban sprawl of Northern Virginia as you can get, we have Internet connectivity far better than most urban Internet users.

I recently got my NC driver’s license updated to a Real Id one. When I walked in the DMV office, I was greeted with a large sign saying “Scan this QR Code to Check In.” As I did, I wondered how many people might not be able to do that? Almost immediately the answer was clear, a lot more than I suspected. While I made and confirmed my appointment weeks prior online, there were people unsuccessfully trying to make an appointment in person at the office. All those folks after a substantial wait were eventually given a piece of paper with a web address and a phone number. One person who said he had neither smartphone or computer was told to call the DMV phone. Someone quickly chimed in that no one ever answers that number. The response was, “they’re understaffed.”

Not long after, I did an e-checkin for a blood test at our local Novant clinic. All those forms which accompany every medical visit were filled out and signed on my iPad from the comfort of our kitchen table. Less than hours after the tests, I started seeing test results posted in Novant’s MyChart app.

I haven’t made a hotel reservation in years by talking to a person. It is always online. We get many of our household staples shipped to us by Amazon. I depend on the fast service of Chewy for the wheat-based cat litter that our cats use. I even read my treasured Winston-Salem Journal online if the carrier has been delayed. The Journal made some of my favorite comics online only. I ended up subscribing to Go Comics and have all the comics that I have loved my whole life.

It is impressive that all of these things would be impossible without the Internet, but those things pale in comparison to what that 2 Gig fiber connection will allow our house to do. We now have two offices both with 1 Gig circuits. My son, the Linux system administrator and network architect, will be able to work from home in his next job if he so chooses, I have been working at home for over three decades. My home now has better connectivity than the three story Apple office I managed in Reston, Virginia, when I was director of federal sales.

What do I expect to see in Davie County and yes even in Forsyth County as fiber comes to many cable modem suffering urban dwellers? We will see more companies like the one where I have worked for the last twelve years. I like to joke that I have only been to our head office in Blacksburg a few times and one of them was the result of a hurricane evacuation when we lived on the NC coast.

Every Monday afternoon for as along as I can remember, we have had a video conference staff meeting. It brings together those of who work remotely with those who work at the head office. There might always be a need for some people to be in an office, but I can tell you the signs are already on the wall of the seismic change that is coming.

Recently we were interviewing for a job with a California customer. We have an employee less than a two-hour drive from the potential client. Much to our surprise, they turned down the offer to have our California employee at the interview in person. They told us they found 100% virtual meetings to be more effective. We got the job and our business is not the only one continuing to evolve. Many will follow the path we have blazed.

I tell people that neighborhoods which have fiber should be called fiber-hoods. Those lucky neighborhoods will form the basis of virtual business parks where knowledge, ideas, and new ways of doing business will flow freely. We have studied over 200 communities in the last decade or so. Even five years ago we were seeing some communities where 70% of new businesses were being run from homes. Much as the home laser printer revolutionized what could be published from a home office, fiber is going to do the same thing for the business tasks that can be done from home.

Fiber will also make it is easier for students to effectively educated at home and for all workers to take courses to retrain themselves for future jobs which might be home-based just like the administrative pool that has answered our phones for years. Fiber even makes it easier for some medical services to be delivered in the home and for older people to stay in their homes longer.

North Carolina has a lot going for it when it comes to connecting people with fiber. Long ago some visionary North Carolinians paved the way with a strong open-access middle mile. The North Carolina General Assembly initially funded the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) in 1980 to be “a catalyst for technology-based economic development throughout the state.” They have gone on to build middle mile fiber across on whole state. It is how our educational institutions and classrooms got connected so early.

That same middle mile enabled telephone coops like Zirrus to bring fiber to those us in places like rural Davie County even before our more prosperous neighbor Forsyth County has gotten much of a start. Coops like Zirrus have done an exceptional job bringing not just fiber but world class fiber to our homes.

If fiber is so great, why don’t we have even more fiber? Unfortunately there is some restrictive legislation driven by incumbent telecommunications companies that prevents NC communities that don’t have a Zirrus from pushing forward. Greenville, North Carolina was one of two that took fiber into their own hands before the assembly decided to stop it. For the last few years, there has been an effort to make it easier for communities to support fiber coming to their communities. While that effort has stalled, it is absolutely critical because we have seen companies threaten to leave towns without better connectivity. Telecommunications companies love mini-monopolies but North Carolinians can fix that by electing people who support letting communities responsibly help bring fiber to their citizens.

Fiber is not a magic bullet. We also need to train people how to take advantage of the opportunities that fiber brings to areas like Davie County. North Carolina is blessed with places that have a rural feel but access to top quality services. We just need to make certain that fiber is one of those services. It has risen to the top of the checklists for many companies and is often nonnegotiable.

Having worked in both Northern Virginia and California, I can only say that people look with envy at our beautiful rural areas. Where else can you find an abundance of farmers’ markets and charming small towns combined with outstanding connectivity plus access to mountains and world class beaches?

As a native North Carolinian, I am a little humbled to know how far we have come as a state. I grew up on Styers Street in Lewisville listening to my mother tell stories of walking by her dad’s wagon from the millpond where she lived in Yadkin County to Winston-Salem by way of Styers Ferry where they would spend the night with my great grandfather, Abe Styers, who ran the ferry.

We have gone from cutting ice from millponds and hauling that ice with horse teams. There were only dirt roads with few bridges then. Now we have to fiber to the home (FTTH) and super highways across the Yadkin River. It has happened in just a little over one hundred years. It is nothing short of amazing. I have to smile a little at the jealousy of my California friends still waiting for their 2 Gig fiber circuits. However, this is just the beginning for no one knows how far our connected state can go.

A Loss of Innocence

Raymond’s Gut behind our NC home just off the White Oak River near Swansboro

It seems that I have finally lost even those places that I could retreat to in my imagination. The COVID19 crisis and the mass shooting in Nova Scotia have stripped away those places that have anchored my psyche for most of my adult life. Now there is no place to run. Read more here.