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The COVID- 19 pandemic highlighted the need for households in Orange County to have access to broadband internet, which is defined as 25 megabits per second (mbps) download speed and 3 mbps upload speed. Broadband has become a necessity to fully participate in educational instruction, commerce and civic life. This need is particularly acute in the rural parts of Orange County where low density impedes the ability of internet service providers to recover the cost of a significant capital investment.
The Orange County Broadband Task Force reviewed different models to deploy broadband technology and chose to seek alternatives that delivered upload and download speeds of at least 100 mbps, consistent with the terms of the American Rescue Act Plan. The Task Force designed a request for proposal (RFP) to seek providers that could meet that standard and serve the County' s unserved and underserved homes. The Task Force also created a detailed scoring matrix and appointed a member to serve on the evaluation and contract negotiation team.
The RFP was issued on Sept. 13, 2021, with one amendment added Oct. 11, 2021. The County received four proposals from internet service providers in response to the RFP. The evaluation team scored the proposals and began contract negotiations with North State Communications Advanced Services, LLC.
The cost to build the entire network is approximately $45 million. The agreement requires Orange County to pay up to $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds as a grant to North State in three installments:
Under the terms of the agreement, North State will offer a low-cost service with a minimum speed of 200 mbps symmetrical for no more than $40 per month, prior to any federal or state subsidies available, until at least two years from the date construction is completed. Consistent with the terms of the American Rescue Plan Act, North State must also participate in the Federal Communications Commission' s Affordable Connectivity Program as long as it is available.
The contract further provides that the standard rates that are in place at the time of first customer activation will not increase by more than ten percent (10%) per year for any service levels until at least Jan. 1, 2026.
North State Communications will engineer, build, operate, and maintain a fiber to the premises (FTTP) network in Orange County consisting of over 615 miles of fiber that will enable connections to approximately 9,898 unserved locations. The county compiled a list of precise address points to be served. Any address points that were inadvertently omitted from the list but are in the coverage area, will be added to the list of addresses covered automatically. The provider will be responsible for procuring all easements and rights of way and will continue to make best efforts at reaching blocked locations for five years after the completion of construction. The network will offer up to 2 gigabit per second (gbps) symmetrical fiber broadband internet access to every home and business passed. The minimum level service offered to each home and business will be 100 mbps symmetrical. The network covers all of the homes identified by the County as unserved with the exception of approximately 20 households south of Chapel Hill.
The next steps from NorthState are to formulate a more detailed engineering plan, which will take several months. The entire build – including the RFP and NorthState's privately financed portion – is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2025, barring unforeseen circumstances.
The construction timeline would make services available to homes within the RFP according to the following schedule:
Visit www.northstate.net and click on the Check Fiber Availability link at the top right of the home page. Enter your Orange County street address. Because service is not yet available in Orange County, it will ask you to enter the address again to verify. After you enter it the second time, you will be given the opportunity to fill out a form to sign up and be notified when service becomes available in your area. The company plans to begin offering service as early as April 2023 to some areas of the county.