Laurinburg working on pilot program to expand broadband

By: Scott Witten - Editor

LAURINBURG — North Carolina has set aside $10 million in grant money to help rural and poor counties gain broadband internet service.

But officials in Scotland County say no such assistance may be needed.

Tucked into the $23.9 billion state budget is a program to provide grants in “economically distressed,” or Tier 1, counties.

The program allows the N.C. Department of Information Technology to award grants of up to $2 million each to private internet providers to help with the infrastructure costs of setting up service in rural areas.

The N.C. League of Municipalities had been pushing for a similar broadband program last year with the Bright Futures Act, which would smooth the ability for rural towns and cities to partner with private internet and cable providers to get broadband into the far reaches of the state.

The Bright Futures Act would have allowed internet provider companies to partner more easily with town and municipalities.

The new legislation provides that public-private partnerships and projects with low costs per household served would receive priority. Projects that provide download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second — previously the Federal Communication Commission’s threshold for broadband — would score higher.

“Scotland County is eligible to receive funding if a private provider applies for the grant program, and I hope that happens,” state Sen. Tom McInnis said. “I was proud to support the rural broadband investment because it has the potential to connect people and businesses in rural communities like ours, and it could be a game-changer for economic growth and opportunity.”

But that kind of help may not apply to municipalities like Laurinburg which has 100 miles of fiber installed, serving major industries, schools and hospitals.

“We already have a rich fiber network in the city and the county,” Laurinburg City Manager Charles Nichols said. “It is underground and above ground.”

Nichols said the city is working with Carolina Wireless Broadband on a pilot program to improve Internet access to homes in the area.

Carolina Wireless a Scotland County-based company would have free access to the city’s fiber and towers to provide service to residents. After a three-month period, officials will assess the program to see if there can be a lease agreement.

“We’re very excited to be working on the project,” said Robert Byrd, one of Carolina Wireless’s three owners. “There’s a lot of possibilities with working with the city’s fiber.”

Currently, Carolina Wireless has two towers that service customers in Scotland, Robeson, Marlboro, and Dillon counties.

Byrd said his company would also like to work with local officials to possibly bring free WiFi to downtown Laurinburg and the James L. Morgan Complex.

“We got the idea from going to softball tournaments and these other places are doing things like this,” Byrd explained. “We hope if we can do it that there will be a loading page with ads for businesses in the area as a way to show people what all Laurinburg has to offer.”

Carolina Wireless is owned by Byrd, Randy McCall, and Troy Hunter. The three began discussing how terrible their Internet at home and decided to team up and create a better form of Internet for those who live in the rural areas.

“The local knowledge the three owners have, being born and raised here, is going to help out a lot in the process,” Nichols said.×407-1.jpg

Scott Witten