Recent project announcements by two local internet service providers aim to pave the way for expanding internet access in the region, a technology necessity highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
ATMC, a member-owned communications cooperative with headquarters in Shallotte, received a $21.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand high-speed internet access to over 7,000 addresses in rural Pender County, according to a recent announcement.
This is part of ATMC’s “Faster Pender” project for which the communications company will contribute $7.2 million in funds, bringing the total investment to $28.9 million.
“This grant will make a considerable impact in Pender County for many years to come by helping us bring high-speed internet to thousands of residents that have been without it for far too long,” Keith Holden, CEO of ATMC, said in a press release.
The project aims to bring internet access to 6,853 residential addresses, more than 285 businesses, 19 educational facilities, nine health care facilities, 15 critical community facilities and 209 agricultural operations, according to the release.
For the project to be underway, ATMC will conduct “a great deal” of preliminary work before construction can begin.
“ATMC anticipates construction of the new fiber-optic network to begin during the middle part of 2021 after all necessary program paperwork and environmental studies have been completed,” the release stated.
That network will cover about 538 square miles, including underserved communities in Atkinson, Currie and unserved areas east of Burgaw and Rocky Point.
As local workers, students and businesses went online during the COVID-19 pandemic, inequalities in internet access were stressed.
“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency. Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.
ATMC has been previously awarded grants to expand internet in Duplin, Columbus and Robeson counties, as well as projects in rural communities of Supply, Ash, Bolivia, Winnabow and areas west of Shallotte, among others.
Another local company also recently announced a partnership that will aid it in expanding internet access in New Hanover County.
CloudWyze has been awarded a contract to update New Hanover County’s technology network, helping with the distribution of public Wi-Fi, according to a news release.
The Wilmington-based internet and IT service provider received a New Hanover County TV Whitespace contract to update the network.
“We are doubling down on our ef-forts for public Wi-Fi. Not only does the continuity of the TV Whitespace initiative reinforce New Hanover County’s status as an early adopter, this technology is easy-to-employ, and it gets internet into areas without a lot of infrastructure cost,” Leslie Chaney, IT director of New Hanover County said in a press release. “Without having to dig trenches or build poles that tower above the trees, we are able to extend our network outside of public buildings to get more eyes and ears on our commu-nity.”
White space technology uses unused TV channels between active ones to provide broadband internet access. This can be used to beam broadband into harder-to-reach rural areas.
The technology, which has been used by the county to connect devices such as traffic light cameras and safety security cameras, will be upgraded to increase speed and reliability, as well as broadening its reach.
“While we have been predominantly deploying a fixed LTE technology called Citizen Broadband Radio Service in rural communities, in some denser areas there are other technologies such as white space which are available and/or better suited to provide ‘last-mile access,’ and so TV Whitespace has been on our road-map for some time,” Shaun Olsen, CloudWyze CEO, said in the release. “We’re excited at the opportunity to deploy this technology in our own hometown. It is our hope, over time, that white space technology will gain more traction, increasing the demand and supply as to further reduce its cost.”
This is not the first internet expansion project in rural areas for CloudWyze.
CloudWyze got its first government contract in 2018 to deliver wireless internet service to unserved and underserved areas of Nash County.
The company completed phase two the project on Sept. 4 and is now bringing people online, said Melissa Pressley, vice president of sales and marketing for CloudWyze.
In 2019, CloudWyze received a $1.5 million grant from the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology program to expand internet service in Halifax County.
CloudWyze hopes to bridge the digital divide in Halifax county, one of the poorest counties in the state, by delivering internet service to 1,000 homes without service.Internet has now become an im-portant infrastructure for all co-munities, U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., said in the ATMC release.
“Once upon a time it was the interstate system, water and sewer that was key for commerce, and quite frankly today if you don’t have broadband, none of that matters,” Rouzer said. “Broadband is the infrastructure of today and of the future.”