Eastern Carolina co-op looks to bring high speed internet to rural areas

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The Federal Communications Commission said a significant number of Americans living in rural areas don’t have access to high-speed internet, an issue many here in eastern North Carolina know all too well.

But change could be on the way with help from the federal government and companies across the East.

High-speed internet access is now a critical part of life, but a lack of reliable internet access is hurting rural communities.

That’s the case in parts of Washington County, Hyde County, Beaufort County and many other rural areas the East.

Greg Coltrain, the vice president for business development at TriCounty Broadband in Belhaven, said technology isn’t the issue. 

“We’ve put people on the moon,” said Coltrain. “But we’re still trying to get rural broadband developed across our country. And the reason for the delay is the sheer cost of getting it out.”

TriCounty, a cooperative, was formed in 1952 to serve areas that had been left without phone service.

Now, it’s internet access that tops the list of the cooperative’s customer’s needs.

Coltrain said TriCounty will need help to make that happen.

“It will take assistance,” Coltrain said. “It’s going to take the federal government getting involved to help some of these underserved areas. Because they’re just so far out.”

But help from Washington D.C. could soon be on the way.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Reconnect pilot program.

“We don’t want an urban and rural divide in this country,” said Sonny Perdue, 

The USDA initiative offers up to $600 million in loans and grants for broadband infrastructure in rural America.

“The United States government can’t solve this by itself,” said Perdue. “What we are doing is a call to action to get all of America to come together.”

The issue is one of the Federal Communication Commission’s top priorities, too.

The Connect America fund is designed to bring internet access to rural areas, giving $2 billion to select companies to build that infrastructure.

“To me, there’s no more important issue than closing the digital divide,” said Ajit Pai, FCC chairman. “The gap between those who have access to the internet and next-generation technologies and those who don’t.”

Without broadband access, everyone from farmers to students suffer.

“We’re basically trying to rebuild networks in North America that took us 50 and 60 years to build,” said Coltrain. “And so, when you start trying to do that, and you want to do that in a relatively short period of time, you’ve got to be ready to throw some money at it to make it happen.”

TriCounty Broadband recently merged with western North Carolina co-op Wilkes Communications to form Riverstreet Networks.

Coltrain said it’s a move that will help TriCounty’s customers in the long run.

“Our goal and our initiative is to find those areas, come up with an adequate business case that makes sense,” said Coltrain. “And even if it takes us seven or eight years return some investment back into the company for it, that’s what we’re willing to do, so that we can make sure people aren’t left behind.”

Officials said increasing investment is key to improving internet connections in unserved and underserved communities.

The USDA is anticipated to start accepting applicants for the Reconnect program early this year, although it is on hold for now because of the partial federal government shutdown.

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