UScellular updates Northampton broadband progress

Published 5:02 pm Friday, October 21, 2022

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JACKSON – Representatives from UScellular provided the first of many anticipated progress updates about the upcoming broadband program, and the outlook is positive so far.

Ron Jackson, Public Sector Manager, and Marci Morgan, Director of Strategy and Business Development, spoke during the Northampton County Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 17 to discuss the project that intends to expand broadband access to more homes throughout the county.

The commissioners approved a contract with UScellular last month to set the project in motion. Under the terms of the agreement, UScellular will offer “Fixed Wireless Access” (FWA) to homes and businesses in Northampton County, and the county will provide funds to partially cover the cost of the equipment and installation for each household that signs up.

The FWA program works through a small externally-mounted antenna on each home which will connect wirelessly to a nearby cell tower. The antenna will receive the signal and then connect to an in-home router to provide wi-fi connection to other devices within the home. The service is expected to bring broadband speeds ranging from 25/3mps (download/upload) to 50/5mps (download/upload). But some locations closer to UScellular’s eight towers in the county could see even higher speeds.

According to research and analysis conducted by UScellular, this “phase one” of the project should be able to reach 1,144 unserved households in the county, or about half of the estimated total of Northampton County homes without broadband.

At the Oct. 17 meeting, Jackson reported that UScellular remains on track for a launch of the program in late November. The company is currently working to modernize and upgrade the last tower, located in Seaboard, and is expected to be done with that work in a few weeks.

Jackson added that they’re “making it really affordable” for the customer by setting the subscription plan at $40 per month, with a potential $10 monthly discount for autopayment. Eligible households can also apply for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) discount.

“Right at the start of the month, we had a lot of interest,” Jackson reported about the response so far since the program was announced.

Northampton County residents interested in signing up can visit the UScellular offices in Ahoskie and Roanoke Rapids to check eligibility and availability at their location. Staff are keeping a list of names for when the program launches next month. As of Oct 6, Jackson said that number totaled 26 households so far.

Lastly, Jackson explained that UScellular is working on more ways to spread the word about the FWA program.

“One idea that we had in mind was a demonstration at community centers throughout the county,” he said.

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards was excited about the program, but agreed that it would be a good idea to show that the program will provide good internet connectivity. He said some people he’s talked to have expressed skepticism.

Morgan replied that the company’s engineers have done tests to ensure the accuracy of the maps for where high-speed broadband is possible within the county, but “it’ll certainly be an ongoing partnership” to make sure everything is working as anticipated.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner suggested that UScellular could distribute some simple fliers to get the word out, and could keep track of which areas of the county interested people are coming from so that they would know which towns might need more outreach.

Board Chair Charles Tyner wrapped up the discussion with a thank you, and asked the UScellular representatives to continue providing updates as they move forward.

Later in the meeting, County Attorney Scott McKellar presented a very minor wording change in the UScellular contract for board approval. McKellar explained that the change request was made by the company for accounting purposes, and it would have no effect on the county’s side of the partnership.

The request was to change the word “subsidy” to “adoption credit” in one paragraph about how much money the county will provide for the FWA program.

As previously reported by the News Herald, that payment – now referred to as an adoption credit – will total $585 per household. The total is broken down as $400 towards the equipment cost and $185 to cover the professional installation cost. The county will be billed quarterly for all installations that take place, and they plan to pay using federal ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds.

Commissioner Nicole Boone motioned to approve the contract change, and Edwards seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor.