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Trio of North Carolina Counties Close to Broadband Agreement

The three counties are in the process of selecting a wireless provider to help deliver high-speed Internet to rural areas that currently lag far behind the access of more densely-populated areas.

by Charlotte Wray, Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. / April 16, 2019

(TNS) — High-speed Internet access will be a possibility for parts of Vance, Granville, and Franklin counties in North Carolina as early as September.

After two years of planning, county officials will soon select the wireless provider and discuss project funding. If Vance County Commissioners approve the proposed funding in the budget this summer, rural broadband could be available to customers by the end of the year.

Henderson, with a dense city population, has high-speed service, but beyond the edges of the city, access disparities are stark.

“High-speed broadband access is becoming increasingly essential for access to education, access to health care, civic engagement, economic participation and entertainment,” a news release from Vance County stated. “Many rural counties in North Carolina have many citizens stuck in the broadband slow lane. Citizens and businesses are either limited to accessing service at the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 10 Mbps download/1 Mpbs upload minimum definition of broadband or somewhere below this level.”

Officials from the local, state, and federal levels all agree: Access is imperative.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., General Assembly members, and federal broadband funders gathered in Granville County to discuss ways to fast-track broadband access to unserviced rural areas across the state. With a combined effort, they intend to make North Carolina a model on how to tackle this issue.

During the round table discussion held at the Creedmoor location of Vance-Granville Community College, legislators shared the need for economic incentive to service providers and the necessity of high-speed Internet access for businesses to compete in a growing market.

“I’m proud of North Carolina, you’ve been working on this for a while,” Tillis said. “It truly is something that has transcended administrations, so this is not a partisan priority thing. This is something we’ve been building on for several years.

“I’m proud we’re in the position we are, to be a pilot for other states and be in a good position for securing resources for rural communities,” he continued. “I just want to accelerate it a little bit and want to know to the extent congressional action is needed to make changes.”

Not only does the lack of access affect those living in rural areas, it affects development. For example, for the N.C. Department of Transportation, reliable and high-speed Internet ensures increased driver safety and smarter traffic management, NCDOT CEO Bobby Lewis said.

The meeting’s location served as an example of access disparities across the Granville-Franklin, Vance region.

The main campus of Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson has direct broadband fiber access. But for the satellite campuses, Peter Hans, president of the NC Community College System said, “It’s a bit of a patchwork … to connect them properly.”

This community college serves Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, a swath the size of Rhode Island. While the main campus doesn’t struggle for access, other locations can’t say the same.

“Community colleges are rural North Carolina’s education infrastructure,” Hans said. “We prepare the workforce. In many ways, we’re also the economic development infrastructure. This is an important issue for us. We’ve got 58 colleges, but 70-some satellite campuses.”

Many students take online courses, but many are without dependable access to high-speed Internet, inhibiting them from completing their classes. Some teachers have reported online-only students often come to campus to complete work for easier Internet connectivity.

“I find in these situations it’s always better to feel a sense of urgency,” Hans said. “When I think about rural community college students who were often rural high school students, they probably experienced these issues before.

“The divide between the rural and urban just accelerates over time unless there is that level of engagement from state and federal leaders,” he continued. “I’m confident Senator Tillis understands the issues and will provide the leadership we need.”

Though the region has gaps in Internet infrastructure, the problem has a solution, and it’s slated for action later this year.

Over the past two years, Vance, Granville, and Franklin county officials have worked together on a regional broadband effort, led by the Kerr-Tar Council of Governments.

In August 2018, the group released a request for proposals to service providers. They received numerous responses and are currently deciding between Open Broadband and North Carolina Broadband Partnership,.

Vance County Manager Jordan McMillen will recommend commissioners at their meeting May 6 allocate funds to deploy wireless broadband in Vance County.

He plans to ask commissioners for about $150,000 a year for the next four years for ongoing access infrastructure. If the county budget is approved with the requested funding in late July, it would take 60 to 90 days for consultants to begin work. The end of the four years would mark the end of county investment, McMillen said. Eventually, access would be sustained by customer payments.

Priority is based on regional signup volume. These signups are where individuals or businesses express interest with the wireless Internet provider online.

Construction would involve running fiber optics to a tower, which will deploy a wireless system that would serve a miles-wide zone.

“Our goal with the regional planning effort is to serve the unserved and the underserved areas of the county,” McMillen said. “But we realize that once you deploy wireless broadband you can serve larger areas.”

A little over a year ago, the group hired a consultant to conduct a concentrated study documenting broadband availability across the region.

The study, a survey that received about 700 responses, found that Vance County, which is smaller than Franklin and Granville, had better broadband access countywide than the other counties.

But nonetheless, once outside the city of Henderson access was not adequate.

Parts of Vance in the unserved population, receiving little to no service, were mainly the northwestern portion near the Virginia border and a chunk in the southwest.

Though a large portion of Vance County remains without broadband, they are “underserved” or have some service or DSL. According to McMillen, many people along the Kerr Lake use DSL, which is not a “true” high-speed service.

The FCC recognizes the industry standard speed 25 Mbps download/3 Mpbs upload. Providers will offer several packages, starting around $39.99, McMillen said.

“It’s a much better rate than the existing providers have,” he said.

Currently, county officials are discussing negotiations where the county could pay more in up-front funding to the project to reduce the package rates for individuals.

“This is going to be a big part of our budget discussion this year,” McMillen said. “It’s one of the ways we’re trying to improve service to our citizens this is one that’s a major one.”

©2019 Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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