The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday September 28th

Broadband Task Force discusses bringing internet to rural Orange County communities

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. Only two weeks after students were expected to leave their on-campus housing and attend classes remotely, students living off-campus are struggling with internet accessibility.</p>
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. Concerns about broadband access during the pandemic prompted Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee to start the Orange County Broadband Task Force.

At the inaugural meeting of the Orange County Broadband Task Force on March 3, the group discussed the history of internet access in the county and how they might improve access in the future.

Approximately 5,000 residential units in Orange County are not adequately equipped with broadband, Jim Northrup, chief information officer for the county, said. 

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee was concerned that these internet access issues were amplified due to COVID-19. So he petitioned to start the Orange County Broadband Task Force, which held its first meeting on March 3. 

The task force is composed of professionals in the technical field, leadership at Orange County Schools and residents interested in expanding internet access. McKee said the task force’s goal is to recommend a comprehensive county-wide approach to broadband improvement in rural Orange County.

Education

Orange County Schools is making an effort to provide internet to students without access – but not without a cost. 

Orange County Schools Superintendent Monique Felder, a member of the task force, said at the March 3 meeting that between 1,400 and 1,500 hotspots had been handed out to students with limited internet access. But, she said the district is paying $25,000 a month to keep these hotspots active.

Felder also said there are families who live in areas where hotspots aren't effective. 

"And that makes remote learning, which we anticipate being with us beyond COVID, difficult,” she said. 

The school system opened up internet hubs at three elementary schools last fall that provide internet access indoors. Wi-Fi is also available in all middle and high school parking lots in the Orange County Schools system.

Limitations to providing access

The task force discussed current limitations set by the state government at the meeting, namely a law that prohibits municipalities from acting as internet service providers. Commissioner Sally Greene said she would not be opposed to Orange County becoming an internet service provider were this law not in place.

“We know after time that local governments have very successfully run telephone co-ops and electric co-op and a lot of us run water authorities, and so it’s not out of the question in my mind that Orange County could evolve to do that,” Greene said. “But of course we can’t do it now with the law like it is.”

However, N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer (D–Caswell, Orange) said the current state legislature is unlikely to allow municipalities to act as internet service providers.

“I think that they do not believe local governments should be in direct competition with for-profit entities,” Meyer said. “So I don’t think that they’ll allow local governments to go into business as internet service providers.”

Meyer said there are other steps that could be taken to improve broadband access in rural communities, including working with electric cooperatives that have previously brought electricity to rural areas of the state.

Partnership with Open Broadband

In 2018, Orange County announced a partnership with Open Broadband LLC, a company that provides internet access to underserved communities in North Carolina.

Since the partnership began, Open Broadband has served at least 200 residents of Orange County. Northrup, the county's chief information officer, said at the March 3 meeting the initial hope was to serve 2,700 residents through the partnership.

Kent Winrich, the chief technology officer of Open Broadband, said the low number of residents using their services was due to limited interest.

In addition, Winrich said there have been several difficulties in expanding internet in rural Orange County, including lots of forested areas, flat terrain and a lack of tall structures. Open Broadband has had to work with farmers and other residents to find places where they can attach equipment.

Northrup said in an email that the county’s partnership with Open Broadband ends in October, but that the company intends to continue working in the county after the contract ends. 

He said there have been two main struggles with Open Broadband – a lack of vertical assets and an inability to ramp up service due to the small size of the company. 

He said Open Broadband has indicated it would not expand its current area of coverage unless it received more money from the county.

“We’ll never say we are done because once we finish an area we may need to go in and replace some equipment because there may be a better technology that gives us more speed,” Winrich said. “So it’s kind of a never-ending project. But that’s a good thing.”

@TrevorWMoore

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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