A partnership between Orange County and a private broadband provider to improve internet access in rural areas of the county is nearly operational.
By late April 2019, customers in northern Orange County will begin receiving broadband internet access from Open Broadband LLC, a company that specializes in residential and business internet services.
Since November 2018, the North Carolina-based company has been installing the necessary infrastructure for broadband service, such as attaching antennas to towers. Broadband is a form of internet service in which the user connects to the internet through wireless radio signals rather than physical lines.
The company is using a $500,000 grant awarded by the county.
“This was the county’s effort to offer a grant, or a public-private partnership, to anyone that could improve internet service to rural areas of the county,” said Jim Northrup, Orange County’s chief information officer.
If the county government is satisfied with the first area, Open Broadband will be allowed to install infrastructure in the other planned service area, around the town of Bingham. The company expects the first customers in that area to start receiving service this summer.
Both the county government and Open Broadband said high-speed internet access is essential for educational and economic success.
“In today’s society, everybody has to be online,” said Alan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Open Broadband.
He cited schoolwork, job searching, remote-working and operating in a global marketplace as major areas that now require reliable internet access.
“So if you’re in a rural area and you don’t have access to high-speed internet, those opportunities are going to be really limited,” he said.
Northrup emphasized the social and economic importance of internet access to the county as a whole.
“It’s not just developing economics, it’s about keeping the folks that are in Orange County, and not having them move out or look to start businesses in other counties that have better internet service in some of their rural areas," he said.
The county government has been working to increase internet access for several years. Under a program started in 2016, people can check Wi-Fi hotspots out of the Orange County Library for several weeks. However, Northrup said this “Wifi-To-Go” program is secondary to the broadband project.
If the projects in both the northern and southern regions of the county become operational, there will still be areas out of range of the broadband service, such as western parts of the county.
Fitzpatrick said his company had discussed further expansion with the county, but no definitive plans had been made.
Northrup said the county government hoped Open Broadband would be able to establish a profitable operation in the county and require no further government incentives.
“But if that doesn’t work then the county would look at funding at a different level, trying to get more residents on board,” he said.
Besides existing cell towers, Open Broadband takes resident interest service into account when planning to add service to an area. Residents can express interest by signing up for a free spot on the waitlist on the company’s website.
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