With Grants and Local Investment, ATMC Expands FOCUS Fiber to North Carolina’s Counties In Need

The Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) is expanding gigabit fiber Internet access with financial assistance from federal and state grants to provide high-speed broadband to residents living in some of North Carolina's most rural, poverty-stricken regions.

A $7.9 million federal allotment from the USDA’s ReConnect Program, to which the North Carolina-based telephone cooperative is contributing matching funds, has kickstarted a $15.87 million Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) broadband deployment project in one of the Coastal Plains’ southernmost counties.

ATMC recently completed construction of the first four phases of its 60-phase “Faster Columbus” project, connecting residents living in the New Life community east of Tabor City to its gigabit fiber service. Upon completion of all 60 phases, the project will provide ATMC’s FOCUS Fiber Internet service to 2,775 unserved households in rural Columbus County. The completed project will also serve over 50 businesses, ten educational facilities, three critical community facilities, and 23 agricultural operations in the communities of Hallsboro, Lake Waccamaw, Bolton, north Tabor City and Whiteville.

The fiber Internet service ATMC is providing is expected to have a substantial impact on the region’s agriculture industry, one of the main sectors of the local economy. The FTTH service will also benefit the Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe, whose reservation is located on the edge of the Green Swamp. Speaking of the anticipated service, Brenda J. Moore, Housing Coordinator of the Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe said, "Finally our Tribal students can look forward to no more boot-legging of Wi-Fi in order to do their homework."

Although the USDA ReConnect Program allots grant recipients 60 months to complete construction of projects, ATMC’s goal is to complete the entire Faster Columbus project within 20 months. “We want to get Internet [access] to these 2,775 homes as quickly as possible,” Jody Heustess, ATMC’s VP of Marketing, told us in a recent interview. “We have about six construction crews, going full bore, trying to get this work done.”

More Work to be Done

ATMC’s work in Columbus County is just a small part of the co-ops' much larger effort to bring fiber connectivity to residents living in Southeastern North Carolina. Last year, the cooperative won another USDA ReConnect Grant, double the size of the Columbus County project. The $28 million grant will fund the construction of a fiber network in Pender County, North Carolina that, when complete, will reach 5,650 currently unserved addresses.

Meanwhile, ATMC is working on six additional projects made possible through North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program. ATMC won its first GREAT grant in 2019, which funded a project reaching 800 addresses in the city of Beaverdam, located in Columbus County. The co-op completed the project in seven months and has already brought in close to 500 new subscribers.

Last year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, State Gov. Roy Cooper announced North Carolina’s GREAT program would hold an additional round of funding, increasing the opportunities available for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to access state grants by twofold.

In the first 2020 round, ATMC was awarded grants funding multiple fiber build outs: in the town of Fair Bluff in Columbus County, reaching 1,000 unserved addresses; in Robeson County (the highest ranking poverty county in North Carolina) for $2.18 million reaching 1,130 unserved addresses; and in Duplin County for $2.5 million reaching 423 unserved addresses.

In the second, special round of 2020 GREAT grants, ATMC won additional grants: another in Columbus County, for $3.4 million reaching 1,600 more addresses; another in Robeson County, for $3.8 million reaching 1,767 addresses; another in Duplin County, for $1.9 million reaching 625 addresses; and in Brunswick County, for $2 million reaching 1,000 addresses.

Altogether, the net total investment in rural broadband the co-op has steered towards Southeastern North Carolina is $63.9 million - $42.2 million through federal and state grants and $21.7 million financed by ATMC. Upon completion of all of these projects, ATMC will have deployed 1,150 miles of fiber optic cable throughout 5 counties, reaching over 17,000 homes and more than 400 businesses. The co-op’s fiber technicians are working tirelessly to meet ATMC’s ambitious goal of completing all projects within a 30-month window.

“Columbus County is just the tip of the iceberg of the need we see for rural broadband,” said Heustess. “These are areas not served by AT&T and CenturyLink (now named Lumen); areas that the for-profit companies are not investing in. ATMC is stepping in to fill the void in a big way in all these places.”

FOCUSing on Affordability and the Future

One important aspect of ATMC’s FOCUS Fiber service is its relative affordability, offering four tiers of symmetrical service:

  • 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.95 per month
  • 250 Mbps for $66.95 per month
  • 500 Mbps for $74.95 per month
  • 1000 Mbps (1 Gigabit) for $85.95 per month

The co-op also offers bundled services that include cable TV, telephone, and home security services. There are no bandwidth caps and subscribers pay no modem fees.

ATMC is working to make its service even more affordable for households in the most dire of financial circumstances, having established an Internet Assistance Program for low-income subscribers who qualify for financial assistance through the federal Lifeline program. Households who qualify for the discount will receive a $18.50 reduction on the cost of their monthly broadband service. By that metric, qualifying individuals can obtain 50 Mbps symmetrical Internet service for $30 a month, which is significantly less than what incumbent ISPs in the region are charging for similar service. 

“Accessibility is one thing, but if it's not affordable, the access makes no difference,” said Heustess.

But even as the cooperative concentrates on how to offer more affordable service, that doesn’t mean they intend to use inferior technology, which is why ATMC’s network planners are opting to only deploy fiber.

“Everything we do is Fiber-to-the-Premise. When we run FTTP it's going to provide gig broadband and it's going to be a network that will sustain broadband for 30 to 40 years,” said Heustess. “We think it’s the best use of grant and investment dollars." 

With ATMC entering the market, it brings another option to a region long dominated by monopoly providers. Kim Babson, Tabor City resident and Processing Assistant at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, said her Internet Service Provider was the only one available until ATMC connected residents in Tabor City. “It has been absolutely horrible service [that] is not up to par. When I found out [ATMC] was coming with fiber optic, I was so excited” she said in a video, featuring ATMC’s first Tabor City customer testimonial.