Chapel Hill News

Orange County seeks rural access to broadband Internet

Local and state leaders are joining Orange County residents to demand better broadband Internet access for rural families.

It’s not just an issue of convenience, state Rep. Verla Insko said. It’s also an issue of economic prosperity, jobs and equal access to education. All three are big issues now in the General Assembly, she said, as is a focus on helping rural communities.

“I think one of the things we ought to be thinking about is how do we make this a statewide issue based on rural needs,” she said.

Insko, state Rep. Graig Meyer and state Sen. Valerie Foushee met with residents and local and state officials Friday in Hillsborough to talk about the need for better rural broadband service and how it’s being addressed.

While most urban residents enjoy broadband service from cable and telephone companies – AT&T Uverse with GigaPower and Google Fiber could offer cities even faster service – rural residents are still in the slow lane on digital subscriber lines, or DSL, transmitted over telephone cables.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reported in November that roughly 15 million Americans, most in rural communities, can’t access entry-level broadband from home, and 41 percent of the nation’s rural schools can’t get a high-speed connection. Urban residents are three times more likely to have access to broadband service than rural residents, he said.

Rural areas lack the money and density that attracts broadband providers, said Keith Conover, with NC Broadband, a division of the N.C. Department of Commerce. The county will need to identify its demand, then show that to service providers and see who wants to help, he said.

Rural families increasingly are spending time away from home to get online, residents said. The lack of service also affects home resale values, said Vasu Kilaru, who lives in Tuscany Ridge, about nine miles northwest of Chapel Hill. The whole county should prosper, he said.

“Between people needing to work at home, their kids needing to do work at home ... in my opinion, Internet access is (similar to) what the Industrial Revolution created a couple hundred years ago,” he said.

Kilaru is among a group of rural Orange County residents who have petitioned county and state officials to find a solution.

The county cannot force companies to serve an area, said Jim Northrup, the county’s chief information officer, but it has been talking with them about the need. The county also, as part of an emergency services upgrade, has identified new telecommunications tower sites and is looking for others, he said. County planners are making changes to help companies that want to build towers, he said.

County officials also plan to ask Person County about its newest effort, Northrup said, to add more emergency telecommunications towers with dedicated space for wireless broadband distribution antennas. The only caveat is homes have to be in clear view of the antenna to get the signal.

There could be money available through the Federal Communications Commission, which collects a $3 Universal Service Fee from all Internet customers in their monthly service bills. The money funds four broadband access programs, including the $4.5 billion Connect America Fund.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has funding available, Conover said. Federal money is important, he said, because it makes the county’s rural areas more attractive by reducing the amount that companies must invest.

Share your concerns

Send questions, comments and requests for new or better rural Internet service to Orange County officials at broadband@orangecountync.gov.

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