PENDER COUNTY — Last week Governor Roy Cooper announced an $8 million federal grant to build out fiber optic cables to 4,000 homes in rural areas of Columbus County.
Funding came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program called ReConnect, announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last December, totaling $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.
The regional communications provider is now looking further north as it prepares for the program’s second round of funding.
A vice president at ATMC, Jody Heustess, said the state’s largest communications cooperative is currently conducting preliminary engineering assessments needed to apply for the grant — this time in large swathes of rural Pender County that don’t have access to high-speed internet.
“Our preliminary estimates look like Pender has at least $30-million-worth of broadband needs,” Heustess said, but noted that AMTC would aim for the maximum allowed of $25 million.
A second round of funding was announced on December 12, and the competition for this year’s pool of $550 million should be intense. Heustess expects something similar to the first round, when $1.2 billion was requested from internet providers and local governments across the U.S. for the $600 million awarded.
Projects eligible for ReConnect funds must serve rural communities with fewer than 20,000 people that have no broadband service or where current internet download capabilities are slower than 10 megabits per second. Points are awarded based on the number of farms, education facilities, health care facilities, and businesses in the project area.
‘I see internet as a utility’
The cooperative has published the Faster Pender survey online to gather feedback from county residents, which has so far revealed employment and education most affected by a lack of capable internet services.
“What we have seen is that people are saying, ‘I can’t get a job because I’m supposed to have internet access at home, and it’s not available.’ Or ‘I have to take my computer into my office in Wilmington just to be able to download software.’ Or ‘I’ve got to drive my child into Wilmington to be able to finish homework assignments.’ The feedback we’ve received is that there’s a desperate need for it,” Heustess said.
Although he acknowledged the irony of an online survey targeting residents with little to no internet service, he urged them to use their mobile phones or to find Wi-Fi access. The same widespread feedback and support ATMC received from residents and elected leaders to win the Columbus grant will be crucial in winning a grant for Pender County, according to Heustess.
Commissioner Jackie Newton said the general lack of communications infrastructure in the county’s rural hinterlands helped prompt her decision to run for the District 4 seat in 2016.
Specifically, she recalled seeing a child who was seated outside her law office one day using her Wi-Fi connection. More recently she saw a child doing homework in a car outside McDonald’s using the restaurant’s free internet.
“I perceive internet access in rural areas as compelling a problem as stringing light poles back in the 30s and 40s,” Newton said. “It was a luxury but later became a utility … Wireless internet is a utility and it should be provided for everyone.”
ATMC’s expansion in the Cape Fear region
The Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) was chartered in 1955 because large telephone companies didn’t want to invest in building poles and lines in the farmlands of Brunswick County. There just wasn’t enough homes to make it profitable.
So farmers and local business leaders went door-to-door and started their own member-owned cooperative, chartered to bring communication services to areas not served. In the 80s they moved into cable television, and in the late 90s they began building out internet infrastructure.
ATMC expanded into Columbus County in 2010, using the American Recovery and Investment Act grant to build fiber optic to 2,000 homes in the southern portion of the county, according to Heustess. Now it’s gearing up to lay fiber optic to reach 4,000 additional homes in the county.
That comes as ATMC prepares its grant application for western Pender County — meaning everything west of the coast-hugging Highway 17.
“We saw a need in Pender – from the Bladen county line toward Highway 17,” Heustess said. “They don’t have anything. They’re served by a few for-profit companies which are honestly never going to invest in those areas because it would be a money loser.”
Those companies must be committed to their shareholders, he said, and are unwilling to invest the significant time and money needed to apply for state and federal funds.
The for-profit model just doesn’t work
Pender County homes are currently served by three Internet Service Providers (ISPs): AT&T, Century Link, and Spectrum, according to Pender IT Director Erik Harvey.
Because less efficient copper lines still run throughout much of the rural areas of the county and are reaching the end of their lifespan, a significant investment is needed to lay newer and more expensive fiber optic cables. But the big for-profit companies don’t want to expand to areas that aren’t dense with future customers.
“That’s where we come in,” Heustess said.
He estimates that in fast-growing, dense suburban neighborhoods like Murraysville or Kings Grant in northern New Hanover County, the cost to lay a mile of fiber optic is somewhere around $330 per home served. In rural areas, the cost per home served is somewhere around $4,000, according to Heustess. Such infrastructure would be unrealistic without state or federal grant money.
But ATMC competes with ISPs in high-growth areas as well, building out fiber-optic networks to roughly 10,000 homes in Oak Island in 2018 and between 3,000 to 4,000 homes in Leland, according to Heustess. They have also laid fiber-optic cable — or are about to — in other business districts throughout Brunswick County, from Sunset Beach to Southport.
Without profitable operations in competitive areas, he said the cooperative would go broke. ATMC pours their own millions into the grants — Heustess expects to apply for a ReConnect category that requires a 25 percent match — and invests a great deal of time and capital into successfully applying for state and federal grants.
In Pender County, Heustess hopes to one day compete with companies like AT&T in the densely populated coastal region as well.
“If we can get the grant and we can serve those rural areas and build up a customer base, it gives us enough scale and critical mass over there to allow us to start competing in some of the coastal areas, like Hampstead and Surf City,” Heustess said.
Before the March 16 deadline to submit applications, ATMC is attempting to garner support from state legislators and county leaders, including Representative Carson Smith and Commissioner Newton. Heustess said the county has seen similar promises in the past that never came to fruition, and he met with Newton on Monday to outline the cooperative’s track record.
The county has been receptive and has provided the necessary data to compile the grant application, according to Heustess, and he plans to make a presentation to the Board of Commissioners on January 6.
For Newton and her district spanning the entire western portion of the county, the grant would be the first step in bridging a communications divide between the dense coastal corridor and the farmlands westward.
“Our people over here deserve to be brought into the current century,” Newton said.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815