Broadband partnership formed

Published 4:56 pm Friday, September 16, 2022

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JACKSON – The Northampton County Board of Commissioners put forward their support during their meeting on Sept. 7 for a partnership with UScellular to bring broadband internet to unserved households in the county.

A finalized contract will be voted on by the board at a later meeting, but the two entities agreed to work together after a presentation at Wednesday’s commissioner meeting. Tom Catani, Head of Broadband Opportunities with UScellular, presented a summary of the proposal.

“This is a bridge proposal for you,” Catani explained. “We’re using our existing infrastructure – our towers – and we’re using special equipment attached to those towers and the homes in order to bring broadband service to those homes.”

According to research and analysis conducted by UScellular, they estimate that 2,322 households in Northampton County lack affordable access to any high-speed internet service.

The first phase of the proposal would be to use UScellular’s 5G low band frequency – broadcast from the eight current UScellular towers located in the county – for internet access through a small “shoebox-sized” antenna which would be mounted externally to each participating home. Catani said this would bring broadband speeds ranging from 25/3mps (download/upload) to 50/5mps (download/upload). Some locations closer to the towers could see even higher speeds.

The downside to the proposal, however, was that this solution would currently only be able to reach 1,144 (about half) of those unserved households.

Catani explained that, with an ongoing partnership, this would only be the first phase of bringing broadband to Northampton County. They anticipate upgrading antennas to utilize a mid-band radio spectrum by the end of 2023 to increase existing speeds from the same towers. And if they are able to obtain funding through federal programs such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, UScellular may also be able to construct new towers in the county to fill in the coverage gaps.

The biggest coverage gaps include areas in the northeastern and southwestern parts of the county.

He estimated that the company could be able to start on phase one as soon as November.

“This would bring choice and affordability of broadband services to many people,” Catani emphasized.

UScellular offered three options for the county to provide assistance to the program. The first of which would be partial assistance to cover some of the costs for equipment and installation. That option would total $585 per home. The second option was full assistance, totaling $1,050 per home. The third option was simply $185 per home to cover the professional installation cost only.

Following Catani’s presentation, Board Chair Charles Tyner stressed that this was the most affordable and fastest option right now to begin expanding broadband services in Northampton County.

He said other companies had approached them as well, but they wanted to bring broadband through fiber which, Tyner noted, “would cost beyond what we could ever pay. More than our whole budget for the county.”

Tyner acknowledged that another company has recently received a GREAT grant from the state to bring broadband to Northampton County, but that company estimated it would be two or more years before anything gets done. Tyner also said he’d hoped Roanoke Connect would be able to provide more services in the county, but noted they did not receive any of the GREAT funds in the most recent allocation.

“I know somebody’s going to be mad tonight because of the fact we didn’t start at [their] house, we didn’t start on [their] street,” Tyner continued. “But we’ve got to get started somewhere. And this company is the only one who said they can do something in November.”

“I do apologize for taking us so long to find a company that will come in and provide those services,” he added.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner asked Catani several follow-up questions about the proposal, including how the number of households were determined. Catani explained that UScellular contracted with a company to determine the number of unserved households, and then UScellular had their engineers verify how many of those households would be reached by their phase one plan.

Faulkner also asked about the cost for consumers depending on which assistance option the county selected. Catani stated that customers would have a 36-month financing program with zero interest. If the county chooses not to provide any assistance, customers would pay approximately $24 each month for the equipment. He estimated that monthly payment would drop to around $14 per month if the county chose the partial assistance option.

That does not include the monthly cost for the service.

According to additional data provided by UScellular to the county, the estimated monthly cost to consumers could range from $13-$64 per month, depending on discounts or participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federally funded subsidy program.

Commissioner Joyce Buffaloe expressed some disappointment that the company wouldn’t be able to provide coverage everywhere in the county yet, knowing several people who wanted to work remotely but don’t have the internet capability for that at the moment.

Ron Jackson, who serves as Public Sector Manager for UScellular, spoke briefly to explain that other options may be available to citizens outside of the projected coverage area, such as 4G routers.

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards praised UScellular’s willingness to help provide service to the county. He explained that he’s asked Spectrum and Centurylink for years to expand their service within the county, including where he lives on Big John’s Store Road, but to no avail.

“We have a digital divide in Northampton County,” he continued, noting that broadband access can help overcome barriers to telehealth access as just one example of its benefits. “This is a huge win. This is critical for us in Northampton County.”

After the discussion concluded, Tyner suggested the county go with the partial assistance option (option one), and added that they could adjust that later if they decided it necessary.

Faulkner motioned to select option one and agree in principle to the partnership with UScellular, and Edwards provided the second. The vote was unanimously in favor among all the commissioners at the meeting. Commissioner Nicole Boone was unable to attend.

County Attorney Scott McKellar stated that a finalized contract will be voted on by the board at a later date.

The News Herald reached out for more details about the county funding for the project. County Manager Julian Phillips said they planned to use ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to cover the partial assistance option cost.