More than 100,000 residents and businesses in Fayetteville and other parts of Cumberland County will have access to high-speed fiber-optic internet over the next year, dramatically increasing service availability in the county.
That number is according to Indiana-based Metronet, which launched its fiber-optic service in Fayetteville this week with construction already complete in neighborhoods in the western part of the city.
Cumberland County is home to more than 125,000 households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year American Community Survey as of 2019. Less than 10% of those households had access to high-speed fiber in 2019, according to the Broadband Administration of the United States. NC Department of Information Technology Availability and Accreditation Report.
This is well below the statewide average of approximately 40%, which is mostly concentrated in the most urbanized areas of the state – the Triangle and the Charlotte area.
The Metronet fiber network is being built in other parts of Fayetteville and other municipalities in Cumberland County, including Hope Mills, Spring Lake, Eastover and Vander. The company also currently installs the fibers in parts of Raeford in neighboring Hoke County.
Metronet head Dave Heimbach At a news conference in Fayetteville on Tuesday, he said about 15% of construction is complete. It is scheduled to be completed in early 2023.
The company says it will then begin construction in other cities in Cumberland, including Falcone, Goodwin, Linden and Steadman.
“When all is said and done, we will serve the more than 100,000 residents and commercial customers in this community, in the surrounding areas and possibly more in the future as we continue to expand our platform footprint,” Heimbach said.
The company says it will invest $70 million in local fiber infrastructure to provide service to Cumberland residents.
That’s at no cost to taxpayers in Cumberland or Fayetteville, according to city and county officials, as there were no incentives or subsidies offered to bring the Metronet into the area.
But there is some investment from the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, as it is collaborating with Metronet in its deployment of the fiber network.
Fayetteville PWC CEO said Elena Bol.
Fiber companies typically install their equipment on common-use poles, our poles, and attach them to our infrastructure. So, our role in this is to work collaboratively with the fiber provider.”
PWC estimates that Metronet will catch up to 19,000 utility poles.
In terms of cash investment related to the project, PWC expects to spend approximately $7 million. PWC said that after Metronet reimburses costs for engineering work and inspections for the shaft extensions, the final amount will be approximately $1.7 million.
PwC said the costs are part of its operating budget, because it doesn’t receive any money from taxpayers.
Bridging the digital divide
The high monthly costs of broadband connections – at least 25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload as defined by the NCDIT – can cause low-income families to choose not to pay.
According to an NCDIT report, just over 72% of households in Cumberland County are subscribed to a broadband plan, although nearly all of the county, over 99%, have access.
Statewide, 68% of more than 95% of households with broadband access subscribe to the service.
The lack of availability is concentrated in rural western and eastern North Carolina.
“Metronet strives to provide first-class service to underserved communities across the country by focusing on smaller, often overlooked cities and towns,” Metronet Market Director John Autry In a statement emailed to Carolina Public Press.
The company’s expansion into the Fayetteville area isn’t the only one in North Carolina. Metronet also establishes operations in Greenville, New Bern, Hickory, and the areas around those cities.
Autry said the company is actively talking with other communities in the state about offering the fiber service.
Robert Van GeunsThe need for more high-speed internet access is becoming apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CEO of Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development said.
“Bridging the digital divide… is one of the most important things you can do as a community to help get this done, and to make high-speed internet available and affordable,” he said.
“If you don’t have access to it, that’s an obstacle. If your family can’t afford it, that’s an obstacle, and so I think having fiber optics across a lot of our county will help tremendously.”
Metronet advertises speeds of up to 1 Gbps for download and upload, with the slowest level of service averaging 100 Mbps up and down.
Impact on schools
At the height of the pandemic, like much of the state and the rest of the country, Cumberland County schools had to turn to distance learning to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Kevin ColemanCCS, chief technology officer, said many students in remote areas such as Eastover and Vander did not have an internet connection to learn away from campus. For them, the school system had to install Wi-Fi hotspots on buses to provide service to students.
“We were able to provide the students with cellular communication,” Coleman said. “But many families will call[us]and say, ‘I want fast, reliable fiber internet, but it’s not available in my area. “
With Metronet reaching many of these areas, Coleman said they won’t have to rely on that cellular service.
“If Metronet is going to come and provide fiber to more rural areas, that would be a huge advantage for students and for the school system,” Coleman said.
And it’s not just about distance learning. Coleman said a high-speed fiber connection will be valuable when students do their homework, especially as more and more teachers take advantage of technology in and out of the classroom.
“They can do the research and the homework,” he said. “They can collaborate with other students, do group work, and communicate with their teacher. They can submit assignments at any time during the day. They are only able to extend the tools that teachers have been provided to present to our students through the use of the Internet and home connectivity.”
Shelby Harris, a staff writer for the Carolinas Public Press, contributed to this report.