Every six weeks, over breakfast and several cups of coffee, Orange County’s Chief Information Officer Jim Northrup meets with County Commissioner Penny Rich to brainstorm new ways to help people living in rural Orange County access affordable broadband internet.
About five percent of Orange County’s population does not have broadband internet service in their home, backed up by a 2015 survey of over 1100 respondents.
“About five years ago, our county manager asked me to help figure out a solution for getting better broadband throughout Orange County, primarily rural broadband,” Northrup said.
Rich said the 2015 survey helped the county figure out where clusters of people who lacked broadband are located to spend money most efficiently.
Orange County Commissioner Renee Price said that although urban areas could have some issues with broadband quality and cost, the issue in some rural areas is a lack of service entirely.
Northrup said BOCC has allocated up to $500,000 for any company that can provide high-speed broadband in a measurable way, with added consideration given to companies that can charge a monthly rate of $50 or less.
Although $500,000 may not be enough to accomplish this at first, Northrup said a better estimate can only be known once service providers send their proposals back to the county by Feb. 27.
In addition to unserved places, Northrup said underserved areas only have a single wireline service provider. He said these underserved parts of the county typically are the ones in need of speed improvements, while places like Chapel Hill, where several internet service providers compete with one another, often have fewer issues with broadband speed.
“There’s a reason why there’s only one provider, and typically it’s because there aren’t enough customers to support multiple providers,” Northrup said. “I think there are opportunities for startup companies, and for lack of a better term, disruptors, to come in and provide services in those areas that are currently not supported by the older infrastructure."
There are certain areas in Orange County where residents pay up to triple of what Chapel Hill or Carrborro residents pay, and internet service is unreliable, Rich said.
BOCC has been advocating for expanding broadband access in rural areas for years, since the internet is pivotal for education and applying for jobs, Price said.
N.C. House Bill 129 was passed by the General Assembly in 2011, and prevents governments like Orange County's from directly providing internet service. However, they can still partner with companies to increase broadband access.
Price said the city of Wilson had already been using public funds to provide internet service to its population at the time HB 129 was passed, therefore they were grandfathered in.
Wilson’s program has been very successful in improving internet access and faults the N.C. General Assembly for preventing other local governments from following in their footsteps, Rich said.
“They care more about the providers making money than they do about providing reliable broadband for rural parts of the county,” Rich said.
One way the county has helped boost internet access is a partnership with Verizon, Rich said, to allow people to borrow free hot spots from their libraries for three weeks at a time. However the temporary nature of this program limited its effectiveness.
Rich said if broadband was classified as a utility like phone service, anyone who wanted internet service would be obligated to receive it.
“Broadband is that important now for survival and when you have people out in the county, especially kids who can’t do their homework because they don’t have any broadband," she said. "What are (county commissioners) saying? What are we doing? We’re perpetuating poverty.”
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