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More than 100,000 residents and businesses in Fayetteville and other parts of Cumberland County will have access to high-speed fiber internet over the next year, significantly increasing the availability of the service in the county.
That number is according to Indiana-based Metronet, which launched its fiber internet service in Fayetteville this week with already completed construction 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 from 2019. Less than 10% of those households had access to high-speed fiber in 2019, according to N.C. Department of Information Technology’s broadband availability and adoption report.
That’s well below the statewide rate of nearly 40%, which is mostly centered in the state’s most urbanized regions — the Triangle and the Charlotte metro area.
Construction of Metronet’s fiber network is underway in other parts of Fayetteville and other municipalities in Cumberland County, including Hope Mills, Spring Lake, Eastover and Vander. The company is also currently installing fiber in parts of Raeford in neighboring Hoke County.
Metronet President Dave Heimbach said at a press conference in Fayetteville on Tuesday that about 15% of the construction is complete. It’s scheduled to be finished in early 2023.
The company says it will then start building in other towns in Cumberland, including Falcon, Godwin, Linden and Stedman.
“When it’s all said and done, we’re going to serve over 100,000 residents and business customers in this community, in the surrounding areas and probably more in the future as we continue to expand the footprint of the platform,” Heimbach said.
The company says it will invest $70 million in local fiber infrastructure to provide the service to Cumberland residents.
That’s at no cost to Cumberland or Fayetteville taxpayers, according to city and county officials, as there were no incentives or subsidies given to bring Metronet to 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.
“When they’re installing their infrastructure, they have to work very closely with the electric utilities,” said Fayetteville PWC CEO Elaina Ball.
“Fiber companies install their equipment typically on joint-use poles, our poles, hang it on our infrastructure. So, our role in this is to work collaboratively with a fiber provider.”
PWC estimates that Metronet will attach up to 19,000 of the public utility’s poles.
In terms of monetary investment related to the project, PWC expects to spend around $7 million. But after Metronet reimburses for engineering work and inspections for pole attachments, the final sum will be about $1.7 million, PWC said.
PWC said the costs are part of its operating budget, as it does not receive any taxpayer funds.
‘Closing the digital divide’
High monthly costs for broadband connections — at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload as defined by NCDIT — can cause lower-income households to choose not to pay.
According to the NCDIT report, just over 72% of households in Cumberland County are subscribed to a broadband plan, even though nearly all of the county, more than 99%, has access.
Statewide, 68% of the more than 95% of households with broadband access subscribe for the service.
Lack of availability is concentrated in rural western and eastern North Carolina.
“Metronet strives to bring first-class service to underserved communities throughout the country by focusing on smaller cities and towns that are oftentimes overlooked,” Metronet market manager John Autry said in an emailed statement to Carolina Public Press.
The company’s expansion to the Fayetteville area is not the only one in North Carolina. Metronet is also setting up operations in Greenville, New Bern, Hickory and the areas surrounding those cities.
Autry said the company is actively talking with other communities in the state about providing fiber service.
Robert Van Geons, CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corp., said that the need for more access to high-speed internet became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Closing the digital divide … is one of the most important things you can do as a community to help get that done, to make high-speed internet available, affordable,” he said.
“If you don’t have access to it, that’s a hurdle. If your family can’t afford it, that’s a hurdle, and so I think having fiber optics through much of our county will help dramatically.”
Metronet advertises speeds up to 1 GB per second download and upload, with its slowest tier of service at 100 MB per second up and down.
Impact on schools
At the height of the pandemic, like most of the state and the rest of the country, Cumberland County Schools had to resort to remote learning to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Kevin Coleman, CCS executive director of technology, said many students in remote areas such as Eastover and Vander didn’t have internet access to learn away from campus. For them, the school system had to install Wi-Fi hot spots on buses to provide service to students.
“We were able to provide students with cellular connections,” Coleman said. “But so many families would contact (us) and say, ‘I want to get fast, reliable fiber internet, but it’s not offered in my area.’”
With Metronet coming to many of those areas, Coleman said they wouldn’t have to rely on that cellular service.
“Metronet, if they were to come in and provide fiber for more rural areas, that would be a huge advantage for students and for the school system,” Coleman said.
And it’s not just remote learning. Coleman said a high-speed fiber connection would be valuable for when students are doing homework, especially as more and more teachers take advantage of technology both in and out of the classroom.
“They can do research, homework,” he said. “They can collaborate with other students and do group work, communicate with their teacher. They can submit assignments at any time during the day. They’re just able to expand on the tools that were provided to teachers to provide to our students through the use of the internet and connectivity at home.”
Carolina Public Press staff writer Shelby Harris contributed to this report.