Over 7% of North Carolina families lack the broadband internet service they need to participate in an increasingly digital society, leaving them unable to access health care information, shop online, or log in for work or homework.
Unreliable internet also turns away potential homebuyers, a resident told the Orange County commissioners Tuesday night, before their unanimous vote to approve a $45 million rural broadband expansion.
In Marion’s Ford, a small, wooded neighborhood about seven miles west of Chapel Hill, they’ve explored multiple options and service providers, including AT&T, Spectrum, RiverStreet, Google Fiber and Verizon, neighbor Laura Evans said.
“Either the providers wanted too much money or they relied on (a) cell signal, which is very weak in our neighborhood,” she said.
The neighborhood’s residents are among an estimated 9,900 households that could benefit from Orange County’s deal with NorthState Communications to expand broadband into unserved areas. A company news release noted the network could reach at total of 28,000 homes and businesses.
The county commissioners’ unanimous decision to also spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money on that expansion “is one of the best things that ever happened,” her husband Vann Evans said.
“You can bore, trench, dig, do anything you want to do as long as you can get us some internet so we can see our doctor, our girls next door can get their homework assignments, we can order a Mother’s Day present from Amazon,” he said. “We’d be happy.”
Low-cost, high-speed broadband
Orange County’s $45 million agreement with NorthState will build a 615-mile fiber-optic network over the next two years. It could serve 9,898 homes in the county’s northern and western neighborhoods.
NorthState, based in High Point, is growing, with plans to add 53,000 more homes in Orange, Alamance, Guilford and Wayne counties by mid-2023, a news release stated earlier this year.
Internet subscriptions will start at $40 a month, providing a fast, 200 mbps (megabits per second) to homes within 1,000 feet of the network, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said. Lower-income households may qualify for a federal subsidy, he said.
The company will limit cost increases to 10% a year until 2026, and provide free service through June 2028 at 34 public locations, including fire departments and community centers, he said. The county will pay its share in installments, with the final, $6 million payment due in 2024 after all interested homeowners have been served.
The deal also sets expectations for NorthState customer service and the company’s response to outages and other problems.
Commissioner Earl McKee warned that NorthState crews burying the fiber optic lines may have to dig in people’s yards. He asked the company to “be as unobtrusive as possible.”
That won’t be a problem, said Derek Kelly, NorthState-Lumos senior director of market development.
“The truth of the matter is we want these people to be happy customers for a really long time,” Kelly said. “There’s no incentive for us to not make sure it looks exactly how it was when we started the project, so you have that commitment from us.”
Open Broadband, ARPA money
The county has been working with residents to find a broadband solution for many years, commissioners Chair Renee Price said Tuesday.
“I can remember sitting in the basement at West Campus listening to people talk about how they couldn’t sell their homes, how they had trouble even with business, so this has been a long time coming and … to get this far, is a great step,” Price said.
In 2017, the work launched a $500,000 pilot project with Open Broadband to serve 2,700 homes with fixed-wireless internet service. The project largely failed, in part because heavy tree cover and the county’s topography blocked wireless signals.
In 2020, the COVID shutdown immediately revealed the need, Price said. The commissioners formed a Broadband Task Force to find solutions. A $28.8 million American Rescue Plan Act grant provided the funding to act.
The county initially set aside $5 million, but in November, the state legislature authorized counties to spend more grant funding on broadband expansion.
State Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat who supported the expansion as a member of the state House Information Technology Committee, celebrated Tuesday’s vote in a news release.
“This is an incredible accomplishment for Orange County and shows how leaders at the local, state and federal levels can work together to achieve real gains for all of its residents,” said Meyer, who is campaigning for Orange County’s state Senate District 23 seat.
“High speed broadband will allow for those in rural communities to finally access the 21st century economy, telehealth medicine and education that they were previously unfairly cut off from,” he said.
Accurate count, next steps
But first, county staff will need to verify which homes actually need broadband service.
Attorney Marcus Trathen, representing the N.C. Cable and Telecommunications Association and broadband provider Spectrum, which also bid for the county’s project, asked the commissioners to make sure its list of unserved homes is accurate.
The N.C. Department of Information Technology has identified only 1,500 Orange County homes without access, Trathen said, and a county report found about 5,000 homes.
“I would urge you to just maybe pause here just to make sure we get this right, because it’s a unique opportunity to marry these federal monies with the need that’s out there,” Trathen said.
Orange County residents who live in areas served by Spectrum and other providers have told The News & Observer in previous interviews that they and their neighbors live too far off the main roads to receive service or even find out how much it would cost.
Other, independent providers, such as Open Broadband, haven’t considered those areas either, because state and national coverage maps indicate they already have service or there aren’t enough towers nearby to carry wireless signals.
More information: Orange County residents can learn more about NorthState Communications and sign up for email alerts at www.northstate.net.
This story was originally published April 27, 2022 8:20 AM.