Chatham explores internet options

BY CASEY MANN
Posted 11/22/18

For two years, Chatham County has been exploring options to improve broadband services in the county.

Chatham County Management Information Systems Director Darlene Yudell and her team of stakeholders, which include members of county government, Chatham County Schools, the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, and Central Carolina Community College, arrived at three potential plans of action for the county.

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Chatham explores internet options

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For two years, Chatham County has been exploring options to improve broadband services in the county.

Broadband, a term commonly used to describe high-speed internet access, may be offered through wire or wireless networks.

According to a study on internet access by governing.com, about 65 percent of Chatham County residents have access to the internet. But Chatham County Management Information Systems Director Darlene Yudell said that number is misleading because it reflects internet coverage as measured by census blocks, not individual access.

Hamstrung by state statutes that prevent a county or municipality from creating a public entity that would provide internet service, Yudell was tasked by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners with researching options that would help expand internet connectivity in Chatham.

Over the past two years, Yudell partnered with the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office to conduct studies and create detailed mapping of broadband services and government assets and also reached out to internet providers to learn what and how the county could move forward.

Yudell and her team of stakeholders, which include members of county government, Chatham County Schools, the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, and Central Carolina Community College, arrived at three potential plans of action for the county.

A first recommendation was to conduct a “wireless” feasibility study and pilot project. In this case, a wireless provider would perform a feasibility study to determine whether wireless could be extended into Chatham County using public assets. The program would need to serve a minimum of 200 users in a defined area known for underserved citizens.

The second option was to create an “anchor point” service agreement. That would mean indentifying a county-owned property needing internet service and agreeing to split the cost of infrastructure installation and commit to two years of service to the site.
Schools, parks, and even fire stations would be possible anchor points for the agreement.

If deployed at an anchor site, the goal would be to then get enough people surrounding the anchor point interested in service, allowing for the ISP to be financially motivated to do so.

The third recommendation is perhaps the most promising and one the county is pursuing first: a collaboration between the county and the Chatham County Schools. In this case, the school system and the county would work together to combine the vision for a fiber network.

Public school systems are allowed to request bids on fiber buildouts connecting their schools and administrative offices using the E-Rate grant program. The E-Rate grant provides funding for the school system to install internet infrastructure at schools and connect that to Chatham County Schools’ administrative offices.

During construction, the county would install additional fiber in the same trenches the E-Rate funding supported. That fiber could then connect to county offices and facilities.
That network would support the needs of the school system and connectivity for all schools, support the county need for a wide area network, and provide a foundation on which the county can pursue partnerships with internet service providers.

While all plans are currently tentative, there would be a two phased process which would created an eastern and western fiber loop connecting the schools. There would be three lines in each loop, one dedicated for the schools, one dedicated for the county, and one left unlit. That unlit fiber may provide a “buildout” point for an ISP.

Though the process is very competitive, there is a potential for very little cost to either the school system or the county. Chatham County and the Chatham County School system have entered into an inter-local agreement to engage Mighty River Consulting to assist in the process.

Yudell said she was hopeful that if all goes well both phases of construction could be completed by summer 2021.

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