Just minutes out of town, families are stranded on the information highway, waiting for their Internet service to keep up as they do homework, surf the Web and answer emails.
They don’t even think about watching Netflix or a YouTube video, downloading large documents or joining an office teleconference.
“CenturyLink and Spectrum — formerly Time Warner — have consistently said that they have no interest in expanding services without substantial upfront investment from residents, which many of us cannot afford,” northern Orange County resident Kevin McNamara told the county commissioners last month. “Cell phone availability is not a viable option for us in our community.”
Next year, over 2,600 rural households in primarily northern Orange County will have a new option because of a public-private project worked out with Open Broadband LLC. If successful, the fixed wireless service project could expand to areas south and west.
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Chatham County is talking about a similar solution now that could start in the northeast, just south of Chapel Hill, said Alan Fitzpatrick, chief executive officer of Open Broadband LLC.
Orange County worked for over four years on how to get faster broadband service to rural homes, said Jim Northrup, the county’s chief information officer.
Through surveys and community meetings, they found nearly 5,000 rural households only have digital subscriber lines (DSL), satellite or just a smartphone.
Available services only offer upload and download speeds of 1.5 megabytes per second (Mbps), Northrup said, far below standard broadband speeds of 25 Mbps for downloading and 3 Mbps for uploading.
Open Broadband LLC was one of several applicants and will get a $500,000 county grant to help set up the system, Northrup said.
The company leases in-ground, high-speed fiber from other companies, connecting its customers via small antennas attached to tall buildings and towers that transmit to a wireless system in their homes.
Open Broadband will charge about $40 a month for unlimited service and has over 120 Orange County residents signed up already, Fitzpatrick said. The service could start next spring.
Slow, unreliable rural Internet service is a national problem.
A Pew Research Center survey this year found high-speed internet access remains a problem for six in 10 adults in rural communities. At least 22 percent of rural adults told researchers they never go online — more than double the percentage in urban and suburban areas.
It’s a different landscape in suburban and urban areas, where 9 percent and 13 percent of adults, respectively, reported that high-speed internet access is a major hurdle.
In North Carolina, more than a million homes lack broadband service, Fitzpatrick said.
That’s despite a push by the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office since 2015 to expand broadband and wireless services to all schools and communities, creating the nation’s first giga-state by 2020. The office notes that reliable Internet is a key to education and job opportunities, as well as health and wellness with the increasing use of telemedicine.
More than 100 internet service providers operate across the state, according to office’s website. Fitzpatrick said Open Broadband is one of the state’s roughly 15 small Internet providers — and among about 1,500 nationwide — trying to meet rural needs.
Open Broadband, which started in January 2017, now serves customers in six counties, including Wake. The company fills a gap left by bigger providers, such as Spectrum, he said.
“We’ve been very successful at working with local communities, primarily because people are frustrated that they don’t have good broadband options,” Fitzpatrick said. “People on satellite, DSL, they go to incumbent providers, and they just can’t get anywhere, so they’ve been going to the county leaders — the county commissioners, the county managers — to complain.”
Working with limits
But counties have a limited ability to respond, because their powers are defined by the N.C. legislature. State law since 2011 also has prohibited cities from offering Internet service, leaving only a few pre-existing municipal providers, including Salisbury and Wilson.
It was Wilson’s Greenlight broadband service launched in 2008 that prompted large telecommunications companies to ask the state for the prohibitions. Subsequent efforts by cities and towns to change that have failed.
The biggest hurdle to Orange County’s partnership, Northrup said, “was the fact that we were developing a totally new way to get internet to our residents and [trying to] make sure that we are navigating through all the regulations for and against a county working on something like this, and making sure that we’re OK with the state.”
Open Broadband will run its pilot project for 36 months before evaluating deciding whether to expand the local service. Northrup said he hopes other counties can learn from Orange County’s process and that it will create some competition among Internet service providers.
“I might have empathy for the [telecommunications companies], but the reality is that they really should figure out how to get better internet service to northern Orange County,” he said.
Bonnie Hauser said her western Orange County home won’t get the service right away, but the county’s decision to step up and fill the rural Internet gap is “so important.”
“I am really excited about this work and impressed that Mr. Northrup and Open Broadband have created a pilot that will reach so many families from the start,” Hauser said. “It’s even more exciting that Orange County stands to lead the state in bringing high-speed Internet to our rural communities.”
Open Broadband LLC has created an online signup for rural Orange County residents interested in its wireless broadband service. Information also is available by phone at 980-434-OPEN (6736) or e-mail.