Orange County, N.C., to Boost its 'Wi-Fi to Go' Project

Social media and word of mouth have increased demand for a tool that helps bring Internet connectivity to rural areas.

by Tammy Grubb, The Chapel Hill News (Chapel Hill, N.C.) / August 26, 2016

(TNS) -- More rural residents are turning to the Orange County Public Library for faster home Internet service.

The library launched its pilot Wi-Fi to Go project in March with 50 wireless hotspot devices that library users could check out and take home. The devices, packaged in Chinese takeout boxes, provide unlimited Internet access anywhere cell-phone service is available.

Kam Williams of Hillsborough picked up a hotspot Thursday. He’s been using the program for months, he said, and the wait has dropped from about three months to two weeks. He uses the device at home to stream movies, browse the Internet and work on his real estate business.

“What’s with the Chinese food?” a group of ladies asked him outside the library.

“I’m about to go eat some Wi-Fi,” Williams joked, as he stopped to explain the program.

Social media and word of mouth have increased demand, library director Lucinda Munger said. They added 22 devices this month and could get more. Patrons had put a hold on 23 devices this week.

Verizon Wireless charges the county $37 for each device, available at the Hillsborough library and the McDougle Middle School branch in Carrboro. The county budget includes $21,000 for the program.

“It’s always a huge number (in demand), and we expect that to pick up now that school is starting to be back in session,” Munger said.

The devices can be checked out for three weeks and renewed twice if there’s no waiting list. Patrons are surveyed before and after checkout, including about the Internet speeds they experience, the equipment being connected and whether the connection is being used for work, school or personal activities.

“It’s been a lot of fun just to see how this works, and see where the need is and why is there such a need for connectivity throughout the entire county, and how can we do it, and if it’s possible to do on a sustaining basis,” Munger said.

While it’s not a long-term solution, county officials said, the program is giving them time to develop partnerships that might help more residents get online.

Many rural residents, if they have access, are limited to digital subscriber lines, or DSL, transmitted over telephone cables. Urban residents, on the other hand, can access broadband service via cable and telephone lines with the future potential for AT&T Uverse with GigaPower and Google Fiber fiber-optic service.

Rural areas lack the money and density to attract broadband providers, officials said.

Jim Northrup, the county’s chief information officer, has become an intermediary between residents with service issues, providers and state officials working on the issue. They’ve also been surveying residents about what’s available in their area, if they have Internet access and how it’s working for them.

They’ve seen some success, Northrup said, noting that Time Warner is now working with some rural neighborhoods to provide Internet service. The county and Time Warner also collaborated to bring wireless access to more places, including downtown Hillsborough, community centers, parks and government buildings.

Other efforts have stalled, he said, pointing to CenturyLink, which got $500 million in annual Connect America federal grants last year to bring better service to rural communities, including parts of northern and western Orange County. The six-year effort was to start this year, but projects haven’t been identified yet.

Other partnerships are just beginning to address common issues, and they’re working on a potential fiber-optic strategy for county buildings, he said.

“Everytime there’s a carrot offered of Connect America funding or Google Fiber’s coming, it turns out (to be) a carrot on a stick, and we keep going down this path,” Northrup said. “We haven’t seen any of those program that effectively solve the broadband issues in Orange County, so that’s one of the reasons we’re doing the fiber study for county buildings, is to start looking at how we can be a little bit more proactive in the solution.”

©2016 The Chapel Hill News (Chapel Hill, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.