Orange County is requesting proposals from broadband providers interested in improving service in rural parts of the county. Orange County Information Technologies was tasked with working to improve broadband technology and access for Orange County residents in 2014.

Orange County chief information officer Jim Northrup updated the Board of County Commissioners last week on initiatives taken and gave a timeline of past and future tasks to improve broadband access in the county.

During the meeting, Northrup spoke of county broadband initiatives such as the WiFi-to-Go pilot at the county library and the free public WiFi network available now in all of Hillsborough’s county-occupied buildings.

Northrup said the county has been meeting with other technology entities and various organizations around the county such as Piedmont Electric and Orange Water and Sewer Authority, to expand relationships and increase the counties’ telecommunication towers and fiber plant.

“The county doesn’t really have a large, what they call a fiber plant, that’s all the fiber that connects our buildings, but Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the university have quite a large fiber plant and now Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are also expanding their fiber plant,” Northrup said. “So really, to be talking with them and meeting with them on a regular basis has really proved helpful to understand our strategy and how our strategy will keystone in with theirs also.”

In late 2016, CenturyLink provided estimated budgetary numbers for improving broadband by expanding the county’s fiber plant. Those numbers are being used in a county’s request for proposals to broadband providers, who want to bring service to underserved areas in the county.

“Currently, we’re doing phase 1,” Northrup said. “It’s a three phased project, where we’re going to Cedar Grove to Carrboro to connect county facilities, and then in the latter phase we’re looking at running fiber from Efland to almost the Durham line, where it goes just north of some of our economic development zones along 70. The thing is that we could drop fiber down to those economic development zones to add infrastructure, and then once the whole network is connected we would then be able to deliver services from Chapel Hill or the university or Duke or wherever; it’ll just be one big network that we’ll be able to deliver service on through fiber.”

The budget of $500,000 for the project was approved by the county last June, but Northrup says the goal is to share the expenses with any interested providers.

“They’re looking to partner with us and purchase their own infrastructure and investing themselves in it also. So, it’s not just our money, they’d be investing some of their money too is the idea,” said Northrup.

Proposals are due back to the county by February 27.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced a new initiative called Hometown Strong at the beginning of February to partner with local leaders to help businesses in rural North Carolina by focusing on projects such as infrastructure improvements, broadband access and workforce training.