“The need for the migrant population parallels the needs of the community as a whole,” Melgar said. “Internet access — especially in remote mountainous areas, such as the ones that we have around here — can sometimes be spotty, and a lot of people just don’t have good internet. Which, in today’s world, is kind of a need.”
As of August 2021, the most recent data available, the group had distributed 258 hotspots, enabling over 2,000 farmworkers to gain access to the internet. They did not have documents available showing the geographic distribution of the hotspots.
An emergency stopgap
The Wi-Fi hotspots were always designed to be a short-term response, generated by the pandemic. There’s only funding for the service through the end of 2022, according to Rivera.
Alongside the hotspot program, the agency also partnered with the N.C. Institute of Agromedicine to come up with a more permanent solution.
Broadband infrastructure takes time to build out and it can be very expensive. It’s an issue rural communities across the state and the country have reckoned with, especially during the pandemic when so much of life has moved online.
“Wired internet… like fiber or cable, really needs to be sort of buried underground. It costs a lot more money,” Rivera said, “but it ends up being more permanent and more cost-efficient once it’s available to you.”