It’s been almost four years since a Lenoir County town and a wireless internet company met to discuss the placement of Wi-Fi transmitters on top of a water tower.
The meeting was unsuccessful for the Town of Pink Hill and Eastern Carolina Broadband (ECB) in June of 2017, but that was almost three years before a pandemic would sweep across the world, leaving some rural communities in North Carolina without reliable internet for students learning and employees working from home.
According to a Duplin Times article, the two parties met on June 14, 2017 to discuss a lease agreement for the water tower, and minutes from a May meeting revealed Pink Hill Mayor Carol Sykes referred to ECB’s rent proposal of $1,250 annually as “a joke.” Sykes was quoted in the meeting minutes saying, “I was thinking more like $10,000 a year at least.” The Pink Hill board did not approve ECB’s rent proposal.
When asked by The Free Press about her current thoughts on Wi-Fi transmitters on top of the Pink Hill water tower to provide reliable internet for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sykes replied:
“I can’t speak for Pink Hill unless it came before the board,” she said. “I can’t make the decision. I’m just the mayor. They would make the decision, and it would have to be discussed. It’s been argued. It was not a very successful time; I can tell you. They wouldn’t pay us anything for it. That’s the whole thing. We were going to have to spend a lot of money on it.
“We just couldn’t do it for free.”
The Free Press recently published an article regarding the need for rural broadband and discovered that the Pink Hill and Deep Run water towers do not occupy Wi-Fi transmitters – and neither does any of the county’s water towers for that matter.
According to ECB co-owner Susan Myers, ECB conducted a survey two years ago to focus on an 18-mile radius around Pink Hill. Myers said Lenoir County has never had a countywide survey to find out what areas need access to broadband.
“We cannot afford $10,000 per year in rent for one water tower, and obviously the mayor’s position has not changed,” Myers said. “We remain open and hopeful to a partnership with Deep Run Water and the Town of Pink Hill, If we were able to access all the Deep Run and Pink Hill water towers, we would be able to reach hundreds of households, many of which do not have high speed internet.”
According to the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office (NCBIO), 10 providers will be awarded $29.8 million to fund 18 broadband infrastructure projects through the 2020 Supplementary Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant to connect 15,965 households and 703 businesses in rural communities across the state to high-speed internet.
Greene County will receive services from Nfinity Link Communications, Inc., while Atlantic Telephone Membership Corp. will provide services for Duplin County.
According to the NCBIO, as a result of the 2019-2020 GREAT Grant round, “11 providers and cooperatives were awarded $10,244,195 for projects in 11 counties to connect 6,860 households and 243 businesses, agricultural operations and community anchor institutions to broadband.”
Greene will remain with Nfinity, but CenturyLink will provide the services through the GREAT Grant round for Duplin.
NCBIO information and communications specialist Mary-Alice Warren said two providers were awarded grants for projects serving Lenoir County. Carolina Telephone and Telegraph/Centurylink was awarded $113,548.59 for an ADSL/Fiber to the Home (FTTH) project with the potential to connect 781 total locations. Centurylink had a provider match of $61,141.55 for a total project cost of $174,690.14.
Warren said ECB was awarded a grant of $135,202 to implement a fixed wireless solution with the potential to connect 319 locations. ECB had a provider match of $72,800, for a total project cost of $208,002.
NCBIO is currently conducting a statewide survey, the North Carolina Broadband Survey, to get a more detailed and more accurate picture of broadband availability and quality in the state, according to Warren. She said NCBIO is encouraging every household and business in the state to take the five-minute survey at ncbroadband.gov/survey.
“It can also be taken by phone call or text, but, if at all possible, we encourage participants to take it from a device connected to the internet as there is a speed test component at the end that can measure their upload and download speeds,” Warren said.
As for Wi-Fi structures on top of water towers, Warren said NCBIO is not involved in specific provider and municipality water tower issues.
“The water tower solutions have been an incredibly creative way that people have been able to use existing infrastructure to deliver services,” Warren said. “There are other ways, and there is expense involved with any option, but it is a very creative way people are using existing infrastructure.”
Deep Run Water Corporation president Clyde Sutton said ECB met with Sutton and his board of directors in 2017 to discuss the placement of Wi-Fi transmitters on top of the Deep Run water tower and other towers under the Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority. The meeting was not successful either.
According to Sutton, ECB offered to pay the water corporation $1000 for the water tower in Deep Run and $500 for each of the water towers under the Neuse Regional WASA. Neuse Regional asked ECB for $1,000 for each tower. Sutton said ECB would not agree.
Sutton also said the water corporation would require a certain amount of money for the periodical maintenance of the tower with ECB’s antennas.
Neuse Regional even looked at another company, which Sutton did not name, to install transmitters and antennas with a 30-day contract. Sutton said ECB did not agree for Neuse Regional to go with another company’s installation process and asked the corporation to sign a one-year contract.
“It would take a year to get out of their contract,” Sutton said. “It was not presented to us in a beneficial amount for us. I understand they want the broadband. There’s no question about that.”
But the main reason the water corporation denied ECB’s services, according to Sutton, was the fact the tower’s rails do not support ECB’s antennas and equipment.
According to Myers, ECB places equipment on four sides of the water tower railing, and ECB will install a backhaul receiver if the fiver backhaul is not on the tower. ECB then mounts radio transmitters to the outside of the railings to communicate to individual households. Antennas are also mounted to communicate between towers.
Myers said ECB spends $15,000 on average to fully equip each water tower.
“We pay a max of $250 per tower per year. It is a partnership to help the community,” Myers said. “Eastern Carolina Broadband provides service where the big companies won’t go. We have to form public private partnerships to help the community.”
But one thing Sutton finds odd about ECB’s desire for the Deep Run water tower is the cell tower located directly behind the water tank on Liddell Road in Deep Run.
“It is 50 to 100-feet higher than our tank,” Sutton said. “I don’t know why they’re not going try to use something like that instead of worrying about the one right there in at our backdoor.”
ECB, along with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, has had conversations with cell tower owners, according to Myers. She said ECB cannot afford cell phone company rates with cell phone towers costing $10,000 per year on average.
“There are more cell phones than people in the USA,” Myers said. “However, most people only have one internet service in the household. We cannot and would never be able to pay cell phone company rates. For instance, in Jones County, we have leased space on every vertical asset available except cell phone towers.”
Myers said Jones and Lenoir were considered Tier One in 2018, and ECB was approved for a 2019 GREAT Grant for both counties.
For the 2019 grant project, the actual work in Jones kicked off in January of last year, and will take two years to build out, according to Myers. She said ECB was able to apply for and win a $430,617 project for Jones due to the public-private partnerships among Jones, the Towns of Maysville and Pollocksville, the Jones Onslow Electric Membership Corp, the farmers with grain elevators and former CB radio communication towers.
This project, which is currently being implemented now, according to Myers, will enable 692 homes, farms and businesses to receive high-speed internet.
Myers said all five of Jones County’s water towers, plus a sixth one to be constructed, will have ECB Wi-Fi transmitters and equipment for $250 each per year for five-plus years.
ECB is also in a five-year contract with Duplin County, and the county’s 12 water towers will have transmitters. In addition, ECB has leased space on privately owned towers, grain elevators, communication towers, and electric membership towers.
“Eastern Carolina Broadband has equipment or is installing equipment on 24 water towers in Jones and Duplin but none in our home county of Lenoir,” Myers said. “One challenge in Lenoir is that Lenoir County does not own any water towers. Lenoir County has been supported and we believe that the County Commissioners would have leased us space if they owned water towers.”
ECB reached out to the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners in 2017 for a letter of support that was used by the company secure grants.
“We remain open and hopeful to a partnership with Deep Run Water and the Town of Pink Hill,” Myers said. “Without the towers, the community is not served while others are.”