Orange County partnered with NorthState last month to bring high-speed fiber internet service to nearly 28,000 Orange County homes – of which, 10,000 do not currently have reliable internet access.
Part of the Orange County Broadband Initiative, this partnership will increase access to affordable, high-speed internet services to unserved and underserved areas of Orange County.
To Colleen Goularte, who lives in a rural part of the county, the news of fiber internet coming to her area is comforting.
Goularte said she has lived on Orange Chapel Clover Garden Road, an area included within Orange County’s fiber internet project, for 20 years.
Because of her location, Goularte said the high costs and slow speeds of internet are large issues. She explained that the problem has even had an effect on her virtual work with online college classes and work.
“Electronics are always getting better and better and better,” Goularte said. “Being out here, it’s kind of hard to be able to utilize all of those when you don’t have internet that can handle it.”
Fiber-optic internet is a method of internet connection that uses cables to transmit information in the form of light, according to CenturyLink. Fiber-optic cables can send data as fast as about 70 percent of the speed of light.
Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene said that because the fiber is installed mostly in the ground, the project is expected to take four to six years. However, service is planned to be available in some areas as early as the spring of 2023.
“While the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area enjoys high-speed broadband internet through various providers of fiber to the homes, most of rural Orange County has no such benefit,” Greene said. “They are not served by fiber; they have slow internet connections if any connection at all.”
Greene added that the N.C. General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that prevented local, county and municipal governments from becoming internet service providers to protect for-profit industries from competing with the government.
Due to this law, Orange County had to partner with a private company to provide service to rural areas. Greene explained that because these areas generally don’t have enough density to make a profit, there is less internet access for those who live there.
Greene said this led to the creation of the Orange County Board of Commissioners Broadband Task Force in March of 2021. She co-chairs the task force with Commissioner Earl McKee.
After Orange County received $28.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, Greene and McKee convinced their colleagues to set aside $5 million for the Orange County Broadband Initiative.
As the most successful bidder, NorthState met all of the requirements of the county’s broadband initiative, Greene said.
After negotiations, Orange County ended up allocating $10 million of the ARPA funds towards the total $45 million investment.
“We, at the county level, see this as a utility that is a basic need in the 21st century, as the telephone became in the early 20th century,” Greene said. “So we decided that it was incumbent on us to do whatever we could to make it happen.”
McKee said the COVID-19 pandemic brought awareness to the fact that internet access was becoming an increasingly important utility, especially with the advent of virtual schooling.
“We had people who were taking their students to the Walmart parking lot, to the library, to the school parking lot — in order for them to do their homework,” he said.
McKee added that this issue made him realize that the internet is no longer a privilege, but an absolute necessity for everyday life.
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