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."