New round of grants could help expand broadband access in southeastern North Carolina

By Ivey Schofield

More than a decade ago, a telephone cooperative was laying fiber for new customers who did not have internet access in a rural area east of the Waccamaw River. Then residents west of the river wanted the same connectivity. 

So Focus Broadband, formerly known as the Atlantic Telephone Membership Cooperative (ATMC), expanded from Brunswick County to the sparsely populated Columbus County. 

“Our focus is serving the unserved rural areas,” said Jody Heustess, vice president of marketing at Focus Broadband. “Expanding has been a natural evolution of having our traditional area and building to the house beside it.”

Since 2010, Focus Broadband has reached 25,000 homes in the region. With eight grant applications on the docket this year, Heustess said the Brunswick County cooperative hopes to cover even more residences and help its partners provide high-speed internet to rural residents for decades to come.

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Focus Broadband  is one of several entities aimed at expanding broadband in rural areas of southeastern North Carolina, where about three of every 10 homes don’t have internet

But laying fiber in the ground is expensive, sometimes costing about $10,000 per home – a hefty price tag for some of the poorest areas of the state.

Bigger companies like Spectrum and AT&T haven’t invested in expanding their services beyond more-populated areas, leaving many rural areas without connectivity. 

As a result, fiber-optic companies whose missions involve serving rural areas have turned to state and federal grants, which have funded more than $72 million for broadband projects in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Pender counties in the last three years. 

Now they’re all awaiting the rollout of millions of dollars in grants from the state and federal governments within the next month. The North Carolina Department of Infrastructure Technology announced $23 million in grants last month, leaving about $327 million up for grabs – part of a big push to expand broadband across the United States using $25 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Thousands of homes could soon access high-speed internet for work, school and recreation – aspects of online life that have become increasingly important since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Today broadband is what telephony was 60 years ago,” said Donna Bullard, assistant general manager of Star Communications, a cooperative that provides internet to Bladen County. “We are doing what we can, but it is high-cost in rural areas.”

From the ground up

Decades ago, Star Communications put copper telephone lines underground in rural Bladen County. But those lines now can’t meet the high-speed needs of teleworking, remote learning and gaming. 

In 2019, Star Communications got two big checks: $23 million from the federal government under the ReConnect Program and $2 million from the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program. 

Now the company is expanding into new areas of Bladen County like Abbottsburg, Cypress Creek, Kelly and Lisbon. 

Initially, Bullard said, Star Communications didn’t face any pandemic-related delays with the projects because it had enough materials in storage. Now, its progress is starting to stall with some orders taking more than two years to fill due to supply-chain issues. 

“When we say we’re coming, they expect you there the next week,” Bullard said. “Sometimes it’s hard.”

Bullard said she hopes the replacement project will be done in about two years, so the company can move onto the next phase of broadband expansion – which will depend on when, or if, it receives this year’s Reconnect grant. 

“It is our mission to completely build out the areas we serve,” Bullard said. “We are very hopeful that we will win that grant.”

With Star Communications’ work, 80% of Bladen County residents have internet access – more than in nearby Border Belt counties Columbus, Robeson and Scotland. 

Now Focus Broadband is working on filling the gaps. 

While laying fiber last year with a $3 million federal grant in Robeson County, the company received requests to expand its services into the Tar Heel area of Bladen County. This year, the company is hoping to hop across the county line to offer broadband to about 700 households.

“The fact that we had won federal funds so close by in Robeson County gave us the opportunity to go after funds for Bladen,” Heustess said. 

This project would be Focus Broadband’s first in Bladen County and would eventually provide almost every resident with high-speed internet, Heustess said. 

Focus Broadband is also trying to move into Scotland County, where just 70% of households have internet access.

Scotland County had already prioritized offering broadband to companies on industrial sites, said Economic Development Director Mark Ward. For example, Laurinburg has a perk that many rural areas don’t have: lit fiber, which already provides connection, and dark fiber, which is not currently in use and can be dedicated to one company to use however it wishes.

But during the pandemic, the county couldn’t adequately meet the needs of residents who returned home for rural living. 

“Since broadband was not available to all homeowners, we struggled with that ability,” Ward said. 

Now Ward said the county is pushing to expand its internet capabilities to more residents, with four companies applying for state and federal grants this year. 

Accessible and affordable?

However, even with improved access to broadband, not every resident will be able to afford the utility. One-third of Scotland County residents don’t have internet due to its high cost, according to a survey conducted by the Lumber River Council of Governments last year.

In Bladen County, more than 50% of survey respondents also said the service was too expensive. 

Of the respondents who did pay for broadband, 29% spent $51-$75 per month, 29% spent $75-$99 per month and 16% spent $100 or more per month, according to the survey. 

Most of the internet packages at Star Communications cost about $50 per month, but that varies depending on the type of fiber and the speed, Bullard said. 

Focus Broadband has an affordability program for qualifying customers. “There’s no reason to have availability if you can’t afford to access it,” Heustess said. 

Under the federal program, any household with a child enrolled in public school will automatically be eligible for a stipend of $30 per month. Since the company offers a 30 Mbps internet package for $30 per month, some customers can get high-speed internet at no cost. 

Not every resident in southeastern North Carolina, however, has the opportunity, since Focus Broadband doesn’t always compete in the same markets as Spectrum, AT&T, CenturyLink, Star Communications and others. 

“We’re trying to get people who don’t have it, not be a second option for people who do,” Heustess said. 

With help from state and federal grants, southeastern North Carolina residents might soon have at least one option for basic internet access, which could lead to even more investment in the future.

Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter.

Crews with ATMC work to bring broadband internet service to Columbus County.
Photo courtesy of ATMC