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We’re an aging population. It begged us to ask, ‘If children aren’t able to have access to do homework and connect to schools and libraries, is this part of the problem in keeping young people engaged and attracted to our community?’

Heidi York, Person County Manager

The metal towers rise from gravel lots, soaring above the trees. There will be four of them, eventually, in the four corners of Person County’s geographic rectangle. These communications towers are beacons—in the literal sense, they support fiber networks that connect residents with the outside world. More importantly, however, the steel structures are symbols of progress.

“Our hope,” says County Manager Heidi York, “is to leverage this fiber to attract future investment in our community, both in terms of economic investment and in terms of attracting young families.”

Person County’s journey to this point was a long one, and it required innovative thinking among county leaders and the private sector. But it was an effort the rural piedmont county knew it needed to undertake.

Rural communities already have a challenge of attracting business. Having (a lack of broadband service) as yet another barrier caused us to take action.

“Broadband and internet access has become such a backbone to conducting business,” York says. “Rural communities already have a challenge of attracting business. Having (a lack of broadband service) as yet another barrier caused us to take action. We’re not going to solve some of the other challenges, but this one has a workable solution that we were willing to commit to.”

The county’s commitment to expanding broadband access began a few years back, when leaders began to recognize the importance of digital connectivity across sectors: business, government, education, health care, and public safety.

Under York’s leadership the county established a broadband team to look at solutions. Representatives from the county’s economic development staff, IT services, public works, and other departments joined citizens and elected officials on the committee, which met for months to explore possible solutions.

The group set out to understand high-speed internet access laws in North Carolina, and to determine the commissioners’ interest in funding improvements in Person County. To help with that learning, the county hired a consultant with experience in building broadband infrastructure. “Obviously that’s not an expertise that we had either here in the county government or in our community,” York says. “This was really new to us. Nobody had really taken this bite of the apple yet.”

What we found was that the cost to implement the fiber-to-the-home network using a private provider was just extremely expensive and ultimately left the county with little or no control over that network.

Person County conducted an internet access survey to better understand the community’s internet access needs—and to get a better handle on the areas that were underserved. Surveys were placed in public places such as libraries, medical offices, and schools. The goal was to understand and define the county’s broadband access problem, and then to plot the unserved areas on a map.

The survey identified three areas of need: unserved business and residential areas, economic development needs in the core business district, and public facilities. “That’s what we decided to focus on,” York says. “They’d be different in other counties.”

After the county developed and posted a request for proposals in 2016, officials determined that a mix of solutions would be best to address the three areas of need. “It gave our elected officials the ability to choose from multiple technologies and various combinations of solutions,” York says. Person County decided to implement a wireless fiber network, with a private provider contracted to place wireless broadband equipment on the four communications towers, and a county-owned fiber network to serve the business district and public facilities.

“What we found was that the cost to implement the fiber to the home network using a private provider was just extremely expensive,” York says, “and ultimately left the county with little or no control over that network.” The blend of the two solutions helped address those concerns.

Heidi York, Person County manager, speaking at the 2017 Rural Assembly.

Construction on the four towers began in 2017. Two are owned by Person County, and two are owned by the state; through a unique partnership, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol helped to cover the cost of two towers, which it will use for its VIPER network. “That’s been tremendous,” York says.

In the first phase of the broadband expansion, which cost the county $250,000, the private provider agreed to invest an additional $275,000, create five WiFi hotspots throughout the county, and establish a subsidized broadband service rate for low-income households, which the county now administers through its social services department. This work addressed the previously unserved portions of Person County.

The second stage of broadband expansion, focused on the remaining two priorities, is under way now. Person County is installing 52 miles of fiber as part of a county-owned network that will connect most public facilities—such as county and city government buildings, public schools, volunteer fire departments, and more—to broadband. “We’re creating a fiber backbone. We’re basically making an X across our rectangle of a county,” York explains. The work on this project began in the fall of 2017, at a cost of $3 million, and is expected to be finished by 2020.

Anybody can do this. We are a very rural community, not wealthy at all. If we can do this, I feel it can be replicated.  

Already, there is a palpable sense of energy in the community thanks to this forward-looking public investment.

“We’ve been really pleased with the outpouring of excitement,” York says, smiling.

She says that Person County has received attention from other North Carolina counties that are interested in using its model to expand broadband access in their own communities. “They are wanting to find a solution instead of waiting for Google to come or for the state to provide funding.” The priorities would vary from one locality to the next, York cautions, as would the willingness of public officials to underwrite the cost of various solutions.

But she knows rural North Carolinians can have greater access to broadband than they do today—by following those metal beacons that rise above the trees.  

“Anybody can do this,” York says. “We are a very rural community, not wealthy at all. If we can do this, I feel it can be replicated.”