Empower, an affiliate of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, is working to bring broadband internet access to remote customers in Brunswick and Mecklenburg counties.
Empower received a $2.62 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to build a fiber backbone that stretches through the region, connecting MEC offices and substations. From the TRRC grant, homes within 1,000 feet of the fiber backbone, about 400 all together, will be eligible for broadband.
The fiber backbone is currently linked from the intersection of Route 1 and Highway 58 to Bracey and from Ebony into Gasburg and over to Highway 46.
Empower also received a Connect America Fund grant for $1.8 million to install fiber past an additional 840 homes in southern Brunswick County. This grant is paid over 10 years, and eligible areas will have access to broadband internet services within six years. This CAF grant will allow Empower to expand its network past the initial 1,000 feet, and into high density communities and subdivisions just off of the fiber backbone.
MEC estimates that it would cost around $80 million to reach every customer in its network with fiber broadband services. That figure would be slightly less considering the amount of homes that would opt out of receiving broadband internet service. MEC and Empower are continuously looking for additional grants and other funding to help see the project through.
As broadband is hooked up and starts driving revenue, the goal is to put that money back into the network to expand it even further, according to Dave Lipscomb of MEC. Just as FDR’s New Deal provided electricity to underserved areas in the 1930s, Empower is working to bring reliable internet to its rural customers. Internet is the next utility.
The broadband internet services from Empower will be $69.99 with the option to add phone services as well. Increased internet access in the counties will mean added convenience when completing everyday tasks like checking emails, and for students conducting research, for emergency response personnel getting online video training, and for faster streaming for customers who use Netflix and Hulu.
Broadband fiber internet lines are pulled over existing power lines in this case, but can also be installed underground. The line on the pole is made up of 12 to 48 casings of smaller strands that are spliced off and pulled to a structure, normally installed by the electric meter. From there, the fiber is connected to a modem in a home or business and acts as any other internet or phone connection.
Each fiber optic strand converts electrical signals carrying data into small light. The light is then transmitted through glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair. Fiber optic speeds exceed DSL and cable modem speeds by tens or even hundreds of megabits per second.
Empower decided on fiber because of the ease of using existing infrastructure aiding in the installation. Fiber is also a more reliable source of internet than wireless, which is often hindered by location and weather.
Lake Gaston residents in Brunswick and Mecklenburg counties are tired of having unreliable internet.
“We are stuck using unreliable satellite services at a high cost,” said Paul Foster of the Brunswick Estates.
“All of the presidents of the Mecklenburg and Brunswick county homeowner associations have been fighting to get fiber installed in their subdivision,” said Richard Waterman, president of the Brunswick Estates homeowners association. “We’re members of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, not just customers. We need to have a voice, too.”
Some members of the Brunswick and Delbridge Estates homeowner associations have created a petition to show Empower how serious they are about receiving their services sooner than later. The petition can be accessed at chng.it/LfXWSF5w.