When AT&T announced Thursday it plans to deploy a high-speed broadband fiber network across parts of the Triangle, it was reason to rejoice for many living in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. However, residents of rural Orange aren’t likely to see improved internet access as a result.
“One of the big things holding back economic development and also education is this digital divide,” said County Commissioner Mark Dorosin speaking at a budget work session Thursday night. “So what I would want us to think about is, is there a way we can start to bridge that digital divide?”
Interim County Manger Michael Talbert said the proposed fiber network will travel up I-40 and could enhance the Buckhorn Economic Development District west of Hillsborough. Planning Director Craig Benedict noted there may be other commercial efforts to expand internet access the county.
“AT&T is adding additional towers throughout the county or making connections on the existing towers, so their market plan is to provide better wireless and data coverage in rural areas using towers,” Benedict told the board. “But as far as the network in those primarily urban areas, no, they don’t have a plan to take some major trunk lines through the rural areas.”
To tackle the issue of connectivity right away, Dorosin floated the idea of creating public WiFi hotspots around every county-owned building.
“Why can’t we create free WiFi in whatever radius we can afford?” asked Dorosin. “Any place we own land… we can make a circle around each one of those, there are people who can access it, and we’ve done something good.”
County officials said this could be feasible, depending on how much the board is willing to spend. For locations where the county already provides internet access, it could be as simple as adding a signal booster to the outside of county buildings.
Board members were intrigued by the idea and requested a report from staff. Board Chair Barry Jacobs said this might be the impetus for some long-term communications planning.
“I think this is very interesting, and in fact, maybe we ought to flag this and talk about whether we want to have a strategic plan for telecommunication, for wired and wireless communication,” said Jacobs. “If we have a fund for economic development, we could theoretically include this as part of infrastructure.”
The board is set to receive an update on the feasibility of the Orange County WiFi project before the summer break.