After years of persistence from residents and local leaders, Orange County has solidified a plan to expand high-speed broadband access to areas with inadequate or nonexistent internet service.

The project will introduce ultra-high-speed fiber internet to roughly 28,000 homes and businesses in the county, including more than 9,000 sites that have never had access to high-speed internet before.

As the INDY reported last year, almost 100 percent of residences in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough are able to meet the FCC’s minimum fixed broadband speed benchmark of 25/3—that is, 25 megabits per second for downloading data, and 3 for uploading it. But in the rural, northeastern section of Orange County, the number of locations meeting the 25/3 threshold drops to as low as 41 percent. 

Disparities in high-speed broadband access have long been an issue, but when the COVID-19 pandemic mandated that residents use the internet to attend school, go to work, and socialize, the digital divide came to the forefront. 

“Broadband isn’t a luxury item, it’s an essential need for everyday living,” Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee said in a news release. (McKee successfully petitioned the Board of Commissioners to create an Orange County Broadband Task Force in November 2020.) “What we have learned in the past two years is that high-speed internet is vital for improving educational success for children, for public health and for public safety, to grow small businesses and for our residents who may need to work remotely.”

Using $10 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the project will be implemented by a partnership between the county and NorthState Communications

NorthState CEO Diego Anderson has emphasized that the new infrastructure will not only increase broadband access to underserved areas but also provide residents with the fastest internet currently available. 

“This project will be life-changing,” Anderson said in a release.

Over the next few weeks, NorthState will begin installing nearly one thousand miles of fiber in Orange County. Service is slated to start in some locations by Spring 2023.

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