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NC company plans to bring faster internet to northwest Rowan County

SALISBURY — A 2-year-old North Carolina company that counts a former Fibrant director among its executives is looking to expand its service into rural Rowan County.

The company — Open Broadband LLC — is specifically eyeing an area of northwestern Rowan to start a widespread rollout. Chief Technical Officer Kent Winrich, former director of the city’s fiber optic system Fibrant, said Open Broadband already counts Trinity Oaks and a local video production company among its customers.

Open Broadband plans to use Young’s Mountain, near Cleveland, to broadcast its internet service to households in the Scotch Irish area of Rowan — the far northwestern corner. Unlike traditional internet providers, which run wires along telephone poles or underground, Open Broadband broadcasts its service in a manner similar to data on smartphones. It would install receivers on customers’ houses.

The company says it already offers service to customers in Orange County, Duplin County, Wayne County and Belmont.

Its selection of northwestern Rowan, in part, is based on a needs study conducted by a county government task force that asked local residents about their satisfaction with available internet service. Rowan County Chief Information Officer Randy Cress said about 500 houses could be served in the Scotch Irish community. Mount Ulla and the southeastern corner of Rowan County were other areas where a large number of respondents said they were unsatisfied.

More than 2,000 people responded to the county’s survey, which was distributed with tax bills, Cress said.

Following the survey, the task force met with internet providers, including Spectrum; AT&T; Windstream; Hotwire, which leases the city of Salisbury’s network formerly known as Fibrant; Light Leap; and Open Broadband.

Representing Open Broadband, Winrich made a presentation Monday to the Rowan County commissioners in which he requested annual allocations of $35,000 for four years to help jump-start its service.

The commissioners didn’t immediately approve Winrich’s request and offered a number of questions instead, including how the company would use local government money and whether Open Broadband plans to expand its service locally without the allocation.

Winrich responded that the allocation would pay for equipment and allow Open Broadband to roll out service more quickly. The company is also applying for a $700,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for service in Rowan.

Making a case to fellow commissioners, Judy Klusman on Monday said a county allocation to Open Broadband is an “incredible economic development opportunity.” People want to move to rural Rowan County and open home-based businesses, she said.

Asked by the commissioners, Emergency Services Chief Chris Soliz said faster internet service in rural areas would help some volunteer fire departments provide training opportunities at their stations and improve information sharing during disasters. A “good number” of rural fire departments have slow or no service, Soliz said.

Winrich told the commissioners its basic service would be $39 per month and include 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. For comparison, satellite internet speeds available in the Scotch Irish area are advertised to be 12 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads, according to the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office.

Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said that larger internet providers such as Spectrum said “no thanks” to inquiries by county government about expanding service in rural Rowan. That leaves the county commissioners with “boutique players” such as Open Broadband, Edds said. A lack of interest from large companies is due in part to the cost-intensive process of installing lines to serve customers — something Open Broadband hasn’t needed to do on a large scale.

During Winrich’s presentation, he noted that other communities have provided some government funding to help kick-start service. Orange County, for example, gave Open Broadband a $500,000 grant. And he echoed sentiments expressed by Klusman when asked why it is appropriate for county government to provide Open Broadband with funding to help its local expansion.

To view a map of data from Rowan County’s survey about internet availability, visit rowancountync.gov/broadbandmap.

Contact editor Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4248.

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