Commissioners hold off on internet vote [The Reidsville Review, N.C.]
(Reidsville Review (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 10--When should government step back and let the private sector step in That was the question Rockingham County commissioners took on Monday, Jan. 7 as they tabled a vote on broadband internet access. Business Technology Center director Mark Wells came before commissioners with a request for the county to approve $32,250 to use as part of a pilot program, to get high speed internet access for the Gold Hill area. Wells proposed using the county funds, along with a matching grant of $32,250, to act as an incentive for companies, as the combined $64,500 would be roughly half of the cost to run cable and equipment to the area.
Commissioners questioned the need to pay for a product that would make money for a private company and only benefit a portion of the county.
"Why should taxpayers pay for them to have broadband," County Commission Vice Chairman Craig Travis asked. "The taxpayers of this county didn't tell them to move there without broadband. Why should we [get] broadband there so someone else can make a profit "
Instead, Travis argued the county should promote that area to Time Warner Cable and Centurylink, the companies able to provide service there. He added that if a company can make a profit, they'll move in, with or without help from the government.
As it currently stands under federal law, counties are split into territories, with only a handful of companies able to provide service. The law states these companies can't cross over into territory controlled by each other. For example, Centurylink can't provide service in portions of the county where AT&T operates.
Wells told commissioners that with the inaction of the private sector, he felt government needed to step in, in order to prevent problems down the road.
"At some point, if we don't fix the broadband problem in this county, we'll see a further exodus of citizens," Wells said. "You'll see population declines. The question is, do you want your county to be recognized as a high tech county where people want to live "
Currently, Wells told commissioners, about 90 percent of the county's geographic area is covered. His goal is to eliminate the holes that make up the final 10 percent. In the Gold Hill area where Wells proposed using the funds, there are 210 households. So county taxpayers would pay an estimated $153.57 per household to bring broadband internet. That wouldn't mean the service would be free. Those funds would bring one of the companies to the table, to provide access. Residents in that area would still have to pay the monthly bill to get the service.
Travis also asked if Wells had done a study, to see how many people in that area would sign up for broadband. Wells said he didn't have a specific study, but his office receives calls from the Gold Hill
area on a weekly basis, with people wondering what it would take to get high speed internet.
"If [the company] is getting $200 to $500 per household, why do they need [our money] " Commissioner Mark Richardson asked. "I'm just looking at the pure economics. I'm very committed to get cell phone and broadband coverage to the county, but I don't want to waste money." Richardson questioned if companies would hold off on any expansion once this precedent is set, without some type of funding from Rockingham County.
Talks of expansion
Centurylink already expanded once in the county, adding high speed internet to 98 homes and businesses in the eastern part of Stadium Drive and Edgewood Road in Eden in November. That came thanks in part to a grant from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. At that time, Centurylink representatives said they had planned a further expansion into Gold Hill.
"We are just beginning work on expansion of DSL [service] to the Gold Hill area of Rockingham County," said Patricia Hatley to the Reidsville Review in November. Hatley serves as Centurylink's Manager of Market Development for Western North Carolina and Tennessee. "Consumers in this area should have access to DSL in the first quarter of next year."
At that time, Hatley didn't mention anything about needing incentives to move the Gold Hill project along. Attempts to reach her before press time for this edition were not successful.
Commissioners voted to table the issue until February, asking Wells to contact the homeowners in the area and see if they want high speed internet.
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