The USDA's ReConnect Program to expand broadband in rural areas has been awarding funding for several weeks now; electric and telephone cooperatives have received significant awards. In North Carolina, Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) recently learned that their application for ReConnect funds has been granted and the cooperative will receive $7.9 million toward expanding their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service.
Celebrating in Columbus County
Cooperative CEO and General Manager Keith Holden, USDA State Director for North Carolina Robert Hosford, and Chief of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe Michael Jacobs gathered at the Tribe Headquarters in Bolton to announce the award and discuss the project. ATMC will match the USDA grant with an additional $7.9 million, rather than take a loan from the ReConnect program. The total cost of the project is around $15.87 million and will deploy FTTH to more than 2,700 premises, including homes and more than 50 businesses. The infrastructure will also serve three critical community facilities, ten educational facilities, and 23 agricultural operations in northern Columbus County.
At the event, Hosford noted that better connectivity will help agricultural establishments in the region, one of the main sectors of the local economy.
“The health and vibrance of rural communities most usually is from farmers and forestry in this state,” Hosford said. “If those small communities are healthy, that means their farming communities are healthy, and this is just another tool in our toolbox to help these rural communities.”
Hosford said the agriculture industry has struggled in recent months due to ongoing trade disputes, so any boost is a welcome one.
ATMC will use the funding to build out to Tabor City, Hallsboro, Lake Waccamaw, Bolton, and areas north of Whiteville.
Other Grant Sources
The co-op is adding the ReConnect grant to other funding it received in 2019, including a $1 million award from the state. Funding came from the NC GREAT program and enabled deployment to approximately 800 homes in Beaverdam and Williams.
In 2010, ATMC won a $16 million grant to develop its FTTH network in rural Columbus County from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). At that time, the co-op connected approximately 4,000 premises. They've established their FOCUS Fiber service, which offers four symmetrical tiers:
- 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 voice and video. There are no bandwidth caps and subscribers pay no modem fees. The FTTH service isn't available in all areas where ATMC provides Internet access, but grants will help expand FOCUS Fiber availability.
Spreading the Word
ATMC has made several videos about fiber connectivity and hosts them on their website. In addition to explainer vids about the benefits of fiber, ATMC provides this video of what subscribers can expect when it's time for installation:
They've also posted video testimonials from subscribers about obtaining service from a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) and the ways the co-op has provided dedicated and simplified service.
About 56,000 people live in the county where ATMC will be building the new infrastructure. Columbus County is one of the most southern counties in the state and is 954 square miles. Within Columbus County is the unique Green Swamp area, a 16,000-acre area where several endangered species live, including the Venus flytrap. The Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe's homeland territory is on the edge of the Green Swamp.
The Tribe will be one of the smaller communities within the deployment areas who benefit the most from the new FTTH 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."
“It’s really going to be a blessing to be able to utilize this, because it as of right now we are limited. Everything is just so slow: You have to wait on this and wait on that. You talk about a person’s well-being, and their education, it isn’t something we need to wait on. We need to put that in the forefront so this is really a blessing.”
ATMC is in the process of design now and intends to begin constructing the network in mid-2020.
Read more about the way rural cooperatives are deploying fiber in the latest version of our report Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.