Facebook to invest in new fiber route for western NC counties

Rural western N.C. communities will benefit from enhanced high-capacity broadband connectivity as the result of a partnership between statewide non-profit and the tech giant

Skyline in western North Carolina. This map shows many of the rural towns in the region that will receive new fiber routes this year.

FOREST CITY and RTP – MCNC, the non-profit operator of the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), has announced a collaboration with Facebook to make high-speed broadband available to nearly 30 Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) in the western North Carolina counties of Rutherford, Burke, Caldwell, Wilkes, and Surry.

These North Carolina communities will access high-speed broadband at the CAIs throughout the five counties. These institutions include education, health care and non-profit facilities such as community colleges, charter schools, treatment facilities and government offices where residents will be able to access high-speed connectivity.

“MCNC is excited about this project with Facebook as it will allow us to improve connectivity, redundancy and resiliency of the MCNC network in western North Carolina,” said MCNC President and CEO Jean Davis in a press statement. “Facebook’s efforts to utilize their assets to help the local community is a great model for collaboration.”

The release confirmed that Facebook is constructing a new, high-capacity fiber route from Forest City to Dobson that will be completed in 2020. The intended CAIs initially to be connected include four local education agencies (Burke, Elkin, Rutherford and Wilkes County Schools), four community colleges, three charter schools, the N.C. School for the Deaf, five health care sites including two not-for-profit mental health/substance abuse treatment facilities, five agricultural extension offices, four public safety locations, and the new western campus of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics set to open in 2021 in Morganton.

“Facebook is looking forward to working with MCNC in this innovative way to connect important institutions that serve western North Carolina,” said Facebook Director of Network Investments, Kevin Salvadori. “From health care to education, it is thrilling to think of more North Carolina residents living in rural communities benefiting from this connectivity.”

MCNC, as the operator of NCREN, has built out networks to serve research, education, nonprofit health care, public safety, libraries, and other community institutions with internet connectivity and services for 40 years. NCREN is the fundamental broadband infrastructure for 750 of these institutions including all K-20 education in North Carolina. MCNC also “leverages NCREN to customize Internet services … and support private service providers in bringing cost-efficient connectivity to rural and underserved communities in North Carolina.”

The announcement indicated that the CAIs impacted in the western counties will benefit from significantly higher broadband speeds due to direct fiber connections to the internet. Additionally, each connection also will be able to utilize other value-added services that MCNC now offers on the network. MCNC’s Davis noted in an interview with NSJ that they were able to successfully direct Facebook’s investment due to long-standing and continued partnerships with telecommunications partners across the state, from private corporations to co-ops to other technology non-profits.

Davis emphasized that one of the most significant features of their infrastructure is its open access network, meaning that the structure is available to any company seeking to provide network capability along the route. The goal of this project and all of their work across the state, said Davis, is to “directly connect these Community Anchor Institutions and at the same time guarantee stability and the best price.”

The Facebook collaboration is being heralded by large and small institutions throughout the region.

“Without a doubt, improving the fiber backbone of the region will enhance the learning experience for hundreds who enroll in the residential program at our new Morganton campus,” said Kevin Baxter, Director of Western Campus Planning for the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a member institution of the UNC System that serves academically-talented high school students. “It will also have far reaching implications for connectivity and STEM education opportunities for several thousand additional students served online and through summer learning opportunities.”

In neighboring Elkin City, local city schools Chief Technology Officer Britt Shaw has similar enthusiasm. “Being a smaller school system in North Carolina, currently serving about 1,200 students, Elkin City Schools aims to provide a more individualized learning experience to develop and prepare our students for the future,” he said. “The work Facebook and MCNC are doing to bring affordable, high-speed broadband connectivity and technologies into our area will provide excellent educational opportunities that will help advance our students as well as our small-town economy.”

In 2013, MCNC completed a $144 million expansion of NCREN through the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative, which saw more than 1,600 new miles of construction added and boosted the overall network footprint to almost 2,600 fiber miles. In the last six years, the network has continued to grow. With the addition of this new route, NCREN total operated fiber miles in North Carolina will now surpass 4,000 miles.

When asked about existing or future plans for enhancing networks in rural eastern N.C., Davis said that MCNC has “worked hard to expand the physical network in rural areas all around North Carolina.” She specifically referenced their network route from Sanford to Farmville that connects community colleges and hospitals along the way, noting the evolution of and demand for telemedicine in less-populated eastern counties.

Facebook first came to the state to break ground for the Forest City data center in November 2010; it later opened in 2012. The data center, located about 75 miles west of Charlotte, was later expanded in 2015. The North Carolina site is Facebook’s second data center, and features many of the designs used in the company’s first custom-built facility in Oregon.