CEDAR GROVE – Two years ago, around 5,000 households in rural Orange County were considered “unserved” or “underserved.”
That meant they had little or no access to high-speed internet. No easy way to virtually apply for jobs, do homework, run a business, get telemedicine.
“It’s almost like not having water or indoor plumbing,” Orange County Chief Information Officer Jim Northrup told WRAL TechWire. “This area is served by CenturyLink DSL and many of the residents barely get 1 MEG from that service, which is not adequate for today’s internet demands. There are large segments of the population that are not getting their right to internet, and they’re being left out.”
But thanks to a public-private partnership between Orange County and Open Broadband, a North Carolina-owned wireless internet service provider (WISP), those numbers are starting to go down — one household at a time.
Open Broadband won a $500,000 grant from the county to bring high-speed internet to residents in the townships of Cedar Grove, Little River, Bingham and Eno.
Connecting 2,700 households
It’s now now one year into a three-year pilot project, and things are progressing — but slowly.
The goal of the first phase is to reach 2,700 homes, half of the reported underserved. So far, Open Broadband has connected around 100.
“We’re just trying to solve the broadband problem,” says Kent Winrich, who co-founded the company with Alan Fitzpatrick back in 2017.
Both had 25-plus years in the industry, and saw a need in the market, particularly across North Carolina.
“There’s regulations in place that prevent these families from getting the benefit of cable TV and landline service. Time Warner and Spectrum isn’t coming out here. It’s not profitable. That’s why these fixed wireless installations are important.”
It’s not just an Orange County problem. Across the state, an estimated seven percent of households don’t have access to broadband. Perhaps more troubling, North Carolina has one of the lowest adoption rates in the country. Even among households with access to broadband (defined at 25 Megabits per second and 3 Megabits per second upload) only 16 percent are subscribing.
A visit from an FCC Commissioner
This week, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr visited one of their WISP deployment stations for an update.
This one is located on a tower at the Cedar Grove Fire Department, sandwiched between acres of farmland on Hawkins Road in Cedar Grove Township. It’s one of several dotting the back roads of Orange County. Open Broadband is taking advantage of any vertical on the landscape – hanging antennas on grain silos, church steeples, even a light standard at a baseball fields.
“One thing great about WISPS, in particular, is it’s often duck tape and baling wire – whatever it takes to get the job done,” observed Commissioner Carr, standing just a few feet from the tower on a rainy Wednesday morning. “Sometimes that’s the tough work that it takes to bridge the digital divide. This is a great example of a community that is making promise.”
Open Broadband is now operating in a total of 12 counties. They deploy wireless technology because it’s the “most scalable and cost-effective solution,” and makes sense for this point in time.
Compared to fiber or cable, fixed wireless is much quicker to deploy, and doesn’t involve digging up streets or moving lines on poles. It is also much faster than DSL, satellite, and cellular hotspots — with internet upload/download speeds of 25Mbps – 1000Mbp.
Plus, the price is considered reasonable. In most markets, service prices start below $40 per month.
“With fixed wireless, you can just put up antennas at the houses that sign up for service, you don’t have to string it to every single house, including those don’t sign up,” Fitzgerald said.
But there are also challenges, says Winrich.
Some residents still struggle with the cost; and they’ve had issues with the terrain, making installation difficult: “It’s very undulating. There are high trees, and there are no vertical assets.”
That’s delayed the process. Phase II was also expected to be started by now or pending. It’s now on hold.
Nevertheless, they remain committed to the project, and are lobbying to see some regulations lifted to make it easier for smaller companies like Open Broadband to get established and broadcast at a higher frequency.
The County agrees.
“Until there is a disruptive technology or adequate funding that solves this issue on a national scale, fixed wireless deployments like this one are the only solution that our residents have available,” said Northrup. “And even that is not ubiquitous across the rural parts of the county.”