The Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which offers federal communications subsidies for broadband enhancements, will shape plans to expand broadband internet access in Warren County.

Joe Freddoso of Mighty River, LLC, Warren County’s broadband consultant based in Wake Forest, outlined the federal funding and provided an update on efforts to expand broadband during the Warren County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 14 meeting. He joined the meeting via Zoom.

Freddoso originally appeared before the board of commissioners in July 2019 at the request of County Manager Vincent Jones to discuss how grants and partnerships could bring about broadband expansions in a more cost effective and timely manner than what was outlined in a 2017 broadband feasibility study. Options described in that study carried estimated costs between $8 million and $38 million and projects taking up to 15 years to complete.

During a public meeting about broadband access later in 2019, Warren County residents described problems with current internet capabilities that ranged from lack of internet access where they lived to limited internet capabilities which prevented them from working from home.

During last week’s meeting, Freddoso said that broadband expansion would address problems faced by local residents by improving education/closing education gaps, allowing the opportunity to work from home, encouraging small business development, bridging the homework gap (whether students can access the internet from home), and focus on underserved areas.

However, he noted that the ongoing COVID-19 problem has brought a new perspective to these needs because more people must work from home and students need internet access for virtual learning.

Freddoso said that broadband expansion will help Warren County to do the following as well: retain existing businesses and population, attract new businesses, create opportunities for businesses to grow, improve the reliability of government communication, provide a public safety communication system upgrade, and decrease lifetime costs of internet service.

He said that the broadband feasibility study estimated that it would cost around $17 million to establish a backbone of fiber optics in the county and bring fiber to the homes of local residents. 

Freddoso noted that the Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be a critical factor in Warren County’s plans to more forward with broadband expansion. Freddoso reported that the county could receive between $5.5-$6 million in federal communication subsidies over the next 10 years, for an estimated $600,000 per year.

Earlier this year, the county issued a request for proposal. In reviewing those that were received, heavy consideration was to be placed on several factors, including ability to obtain financing and the county match that would be required.

Last week, Freddoso told commissioners that proposals were received from the following:

• Open Broadband, a North Carolina-based company which serves rural communities. The proposal included fixed wireless with fiber backhaul and community WiFi hotspots. The company was recently selected to serve Franklin, Granville and Vance counties.

• RadioLED, a company based in Liechtenstein, located between Austria and Switzerland. The company builds and manages hybrid fiver/wireless mesh networks in Austria and Switzerland with other projects in negotiation. The proposal involved partnering with the county to build a network and invite providers to use the network.

Freddoso said that RadioLED wanted Warren County to support a $3-$4 million investment and would be the first technological deployment of its kind in the United States.

He said that Open Broadband proposed to invest significantly in counties to deploy fixed wireless service with some potential for fiber optics in high density areas.

However, Freddoso said that both proposals had disadvantages: neither leveraged the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and neither proposed an adequate pathway to continuous improvement that would not burden the county. 

Therefore, the county’s Broadband Action Committee decided to explore other options that would allow for ongoing improvement in download/upload speed as outlined in federal guidelines. The committee has talked with three providers: CenturyLink, CloudWyze and RiverStreet.

Freddoso said that each of these providers would support a combination of wireless and fiber optics and would take advantage of the Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

He noted that 2,789 locations (households), or 40 percent of households, in Warren County are eligible for the RDOF subsidy.

At this point, the county is waiting to see which of the providers the committee talked with will be awarded the RDOF funds. That announcement is expected in December. 

After that, the county will communicate with the winner. A final decision about county involvement in broadband deployment is expected in January or February.