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Florida County Residents Feel Behind Without Fiber Optics

Hundreds of residents in the mostly rural areas of east Seminole County face excruciatingly slow and data-restricted Internet service because of the lack of reliable broadband options.

fiber optic
(TNS) — For Norma Morrison and her family, the simple benefits of connecting to the internet — such as watching a movie on Netflix, joining a telemeeting for work or downloading a school lecture — can be a frustrating ordeal, especially if more than one device is being used in their home.

The movie will halt midway with a spinning wheel. The Zoom meeting will freeze. The lecture or assignment will take long minutes to download.

Like hundreds of residents in the mostly rural areas of east Seminole County, the Morrisons — who live in Chuluota — face excruciatingly slow and data-restricted internet service because of the lack of reliable broadband service.

“High-speed internet here is a joke,” Morrison said. “Our internet can go out six or seven times a day. And once it comes back on, we are jumping up and down in happiness.”

While in Altamonte Springs, a densely populated urban area, this week, Metronet officials showed off the company’s newly installed fiber optic equipment that has already started providing residents and businesses with lightning-fast speeds to the internet. With fiber optics, a movie can be downloaded in about the time it takes to blink your eye.

Metronet’s launching of its fiber optic service follows Denver-based WOW! announcing last January that it had added hundreds of customers to its all-fiber network also in Altamonte Springs. WOW! also plans to invest at least $60 million in installing fiber optic lines across Seminole to broaden its range.

In the coming months, Metronet and WOW! plan to expand their high-speed fiber services into Apopka, Maitland and other areas of Seminole and Orange counties. That would give residents, company officials say, more choices. The companies did not receive government financial incentives for the projects.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, WOW! workers dug into yards in a west Seminole neighborhood as they installed bright-orange cables for that company’s fiber optic network.

Officials with both companies would not reveal how many customers have signed up for the high-speed service.

Spectrum and other companies have already offered broadband internet service in that area. But the fiber optic service gives residents in urban areas more choices, officials said.

“With more competition and provider choice, residents and businesses will have access to better pricing, better service and better customer service,” Bill Gilliam, vice president and general manager for Metronet, said this week after showing his company’s new fiber optic cabinets off Spring Oaks Boulevard.

Broadband has download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, according to the Federal Communications. That’s just enough to watch a movie, live stream a meeting or call up most websites.

Metro and WOW! representatives note that fiber optic — with speeds of 2 gigabits and faster — is the way of the future as more people work from home, patients connect with doctors online and people enjoy watching movies and videos online.

Fiber optic is technology that transmits data by sending pulses of light along thin glass fibers about the thickness of a human hair. Traditional cable internet service transmits the data with electricity through copper wires.

“With fiber infrastructure, you have that capacity to launch higher speeds for the future,” said Artney Dennis, manager of operations for WOW! “It doesn’t take a whole lot of infrastructure to get there. … Some of the customers we have spoken with said they have been waiting for this for a long time.”

As part of a federal effort to help, residents who qualify can get a $30 break on their internet bill. Metronet, WOW!, Spectrum and AT&T participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

Still, residents in many rural areas feel they are being left behind.

The lack of wiring and other communications infrastructure for broadband access and even fiber optics in rural and in some urban areas means that reliable or sufficiently fast service is still unavailable.

County and company officials said internet providers do not see the return on investment in the expense of installing broadband infrastructure, including fiber optics, for the few properties that sit far apart in rural communities.

About 896 properties in Seminole do not have broadband access, including 838 in the Geneva and Chuluota areas, according to an October 2022 report from Magellan Advisors, contracted by the county to study residents’ access to broadband services.

According to the study, many residents are using older DSL technology or satellite technology to obtain service. And some homes simply do not have service.

Seminole commissioned the study after dedicating $4.7 million toward providing or improving broadband services to deficient areas across the county. The money comes from the $92 million Seminole will receive through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“As we know because of COVID, [broadband service] is important for things such as education and access to healthcare,” said Frank Camarata, Seminole’s IT project manager. “It’s becoming more of a need today. … The challenge is that those households that lack broadband are able to get it.”

County officials said Seminole is working with internet providers, such as Spectrum and AT&T, in helping them to secure state and federal grants for building the infrastructure, including running lines to the homes on large properties in rural areas.

Seminole also recently hired a new manager who will oversee broadband accessibility to residents for the county.

But for Morrison — whose husband uses his computer to work from home, sometimes sitting on his porch for better reception — she just wants reliable access to the internet.

“We’re not even asking for fiber optic; just give us broadband access,” she said. “I don’t care how much people want to live out in the country and be off the grid. Sooner or later, you will want to connect to the internet.”

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