Thursday, November 30, 2023

Pender fiber-optic project aims to reach 6,000 homes, new data shows serious ‘digital divide’

A home on Herrings Chapel Road, roughly six miles west of Burgaw. A new federally funded project looks to bring fiber-optic internet to roughly two-thirds of the county. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the NCDIT said the data gathered includes the population with access to traditional infrastructure-based internet and did not include those with satellite internet availability.

He said the methodology used to explain the data variables — in this case the population with “no internet access” — was meant to describe the population with no access to DSL, cable, or fiber-optic internet.

PENDER COUNTY — Two decades into the 21st century, more than 8 percent of Pender County’s population still has no access to DSL, cable, or fiber-optic internet.

With broadband availability among the state’s worst, a Shallotte-based cooperative Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) is looking to roll out fiber-optic lines to roughly 6,000 homes in Pender County’s undeveloped rural areas west of Highway 17, comprising roughly two-thirds of the entire county’s geographical area.

RELATED: Communications cooperative looks for $25 million to bring fiber-optic to Pender’s rural ‘hinterlands’

Data released by the state last week showed that Pender County has the seventh-lowest internet provision rate — the percentage of the population with access to internet — among the 100 counties in the state. According to the data, which was released to provide a more accurate portrayal of broadband availability across the state, 8.3 percent of Pender’s population doesn’t have an internet provider.

Fiber optic to two-thirds of the county

Keith Holden, CEO of ATMC, said on Friday that the company’s most recent projection of total costs was $28.5 million, which it is seeking to fund through the USDA ReConnect grant. ATMC would need to cover 25 percent of those costs, according to Holden.

The project’s overall scope is ambitious.

“It will cover roughly two-thirds of the square miles of Pender County,” Holden said.

Pender is the state’s fifth-largest county at 870 square miles of land. According to Holden’s projection, the project would lay out fiber-optic infrastructure to approximately 580 square miles, reaching approximately 6,000 homes. Compared to data collected by the county as part of its Pender 2.0 land use plan, which showed a total of 27,071 housing units in 2015, this would consist of roughly 22 percent of all housing units in the county.

Outside engineering groups are now completing environmental studies before any construction would take place, in addition to network design work performed by ATMC engineers, according to Holden. The deadline to submit an application for the next round of ReConnect funds is March 16.

Holden said county officials have been very supportive of the project, and that its GIS data has been useful in accurately mapping out the county. Commissioner Jackie Newton, he said, has particularly been a strong advocate for raising awareness of rural Pender’s lack of internet access.

“She deals with the problems first-hand out there,” Holden said.

Last December, Newton said the general lack of communications infrastructure in the county’s rural ‘hinterlands,’ including telephone lines, was a major factor in her decision to run for the District 4 seat in 2016.

“Our people over here deserve to be brought into the current century,” Newton said.

Her district includes the small town of Atkinson, which, as reported by WECT last week, includes a town hall that struggles to get a working internet connection.

Pender County's overall 'Broadband Availability and Quality Score' is 49.5, the state's 17th lowest. Click here to view the interactive map. (Map courtesy NC DIT)
Pender County’s overall ‘Broadband Availability and Quality Score’ is 49.5, the state’s 17th lowest. Click here to view an interactive map and other key data. (Map courtesy NC DIT)

Jody Heustess, a vice president at ATMC, said in December that an online survey revealed two areas of concern most impacted by a lack of capable internet service — employment and education. He said the need for internet access was ‘desperate.’

“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.

County spokesperson Tammy Proctor said the potential project would open the western side of the county to growth in education and business.

“Students can’t do their homework without the internet, and businesses can’t function without internet anymore,” Proctor said. “So it is very important — it’s vital — to growth and stability of the county.”

Pender’s internet availability dwarfed by neighboring counties

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) launched its broadband data analysis program, called the North Carolina Broadband Indices, because “data on where broadband is and isn’t available is notoriously under-reported” across the state.

“These indices are essential for gaining a better understanding of the areas we serve and the challenges those areas face when it comes to accessing and adopting high-speed connectivity,” Jeff Sural, director of NCDIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, said.

The data shows Pender County’s population that has no access to internet (8.3%) is not only seventh-highest in the state, but is also dwarfed by its neighbors to the south (.15% for New Hanover and 1.6% for Brunswick).

Its Broadband Availability and Quality Index was developed using eight different variables. A chart showing Pender County’s availability indicators, as compared to neighboring counties, is listed below.

* As upload speeds have become increasingly important for homes and businesses, communities with higher ratios have a competitive advantage.
** Newer homes are more likely to be pre-wired for broadband connectivity, reducing the cost to providers.

Pender County’s overall ‘availability score’ of 49.1 is the 17th-lowest in the state, and is far lower than its regional neighbors, New Hanover County (84.2) and Brunswick County (72.9).

The data reveals key challenges and opportunities that ATMC’s project could provide, if funding is approved. First, the drastic difference in population density between Pender County and its neighbors, measured by housing units per square miles, shows the challenge of building out internet infrastructure in a largely rural county — mainly, how much it would cost per home provided.

The three for-profit companies providing internet inside the county today do not want to expand to areas that aren’t dense with future customers, according to Heustess. Such infrastructure would be unrealistic without state or federal grant money.

“That’s where we come in,” Heustess said.

Second, the data shows what’s possible through ATMC’s work. It built 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. Even though its own population is much less dense than New Hanover County’s — 63 units per square mile compared to 484 — its overall availability score of 72.9 is only 11 points smaller.

Furthermore, Brunswick County has a higher population served by fiber-optic broadband (28.8%) than New Hanover County (21.6%), even with a population density ratio that is more than seven times smaller — most certainly a result of the 13,000 to 14,000 homes ATMC provided service to in recent years.

The data was created by Dr. Roberto Gallardo, a broadband researcher at Purdue University, who was commissioned by NCDIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office. Amy Huffman, a data inclusion and policy manager at the office, said the data will provide a way to measure progress in closing the communications gap between rural and developed areas.

“These indices will give us great benchmarks for measuring change over time in broadband access and adoption and help us assess our progress in closing the digital divide,” Huffman said.

Send comments and tips to Mark Darrough at or (970) 413-3815

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