Rural County’s Fiber Optic Network Perseveres Against Big Telecom

Rural Oconee County, population 75,000, took it upon themselves to bring high-speed wireless connectivity to residents and businesses, despite obstruction by a telecommunications giant. Community Networks reported that Oconee FOCUS, the 240-mile fiber optic publicly owned network was achieved through funding by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), dedicated organizers, and determination in the face of obstruction.

Oconee County has the perfect combination of a rural environment with a sparse population, sluggish economic growth, and a high number of unserved and underserved premises to make it eligible for stimulus funds. In 2010, the county received a $9.6 million grant and contributed an additional $4.6 million to deploy the $14.3 million fiber-optic infrastructure. Construction began in 2011, and was completed by 2013. The following year, six providers were offering service via the publicly owned fiber infrastructure. It sounds like a seamless process, but there was objection along the way…from AT&T.

According to Community Networks, in 2011 and 2012, AT&T deployed its many lobbyists to South Carolina to prevent Oconee County and others from considering improving their local connectivity through publicly owned infrastructure. Challenges ensued including passing legislature – H3508 –  that forced county officials to change their business model to wholesale only. This model made it difficult for the county to cover operating costs, since they were restricted to generating revenue from small businesses instead of including ISPs, which was the original plan.  

Due to the financial strain, in 2016, Oconee County was looking for a buyer to take over the network. OneTone Telecom was chosen with a 20-year “lease to buy” option, with the county retaining ownership of the asset for its “useful life.” Over the course of the lease, OneTone will pay $6.3 million to Oconee County, reported Community Networks.

Under the agreement with the county, OneTone will continue providing 10 Gbps wide area network (WAN) connectivity and 1 Gbps internet access to the school district, with no increase in fees over the 20-year period. Additionally, county facilities and approximately 70 community anchor institutions will continue to receive connections at 100 Mbps and 30 Mbps, respectively. Fire stations will receive internet access and 100 Mbps connectivity at no cost, reported Community Networks.

How important is the Oconee FOCUS network to the rural South Carolina communities it serves? Improving access to broadband and creating economic development opportunities in the rural county were the drivers behind the project, but its impact goes beyond even those objectives.

According to Kim Wilbanks, who was Project Manager for the fiber optic network, “People laugh at me when I say this, but once you get into this business you realize, people would rather have internet than they would power or water. When there’s a storm or anything that goes through they couldn’t care less about power as long as they have their laptop charged, their phones charged, and…they want to know when their internet is coming back up.”

January 12, 2018   

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