For many years, the options for Internet access in Alamance County have been a Hobson’s choice between two telecom giants.
On the one hand, residents could connect to the Web through AT&T. Or they could take their business to Spectrum, which had parlayed its monopoly on cable TV to become the default source of broadband Internet service for much of the county.
Lately, however, the county’s headlong rate of residential development, as well as the lure of state and federal subsidies for broadband infrastructure, has drawn other contenders into the slogging match over the local Internet market. But one firm out of High Point seems to have posed a particularly formidable challenge to the dominant positions that Spectrum and AT&T have traditionally boasted in Alamance County.
Over the past couple of years, a fiber optic network called Lumos has risen from relative obscurity to become a major player in the bustling bullpen of Internet Service Providers.
This company, which previously did business as NorthState Communications, began to attract notice in 2017 when it clinched a lucrative contract to provide high-speed Internet access to a coalition of government agencies, businesses, and educational institutions all over the Triad.
This so-called Tri-Gig Initiative also served as the company’s entrée to officials in Burlington, who were among the local government partners involved in this public-private endeavor.
Scott Bibler, Burlington’s IT director, recalls that the Tri-Gig Initiative marked the start of an ongoing relationship between the city and the High Point-based contractor. Among the latest fruits of this alliance is a proposed lease agreement that Bibler said would allow the city to enhance its own emergency communications using fiber lines that the company already has in the works along U.S. 70.
“They’re building out from Greensboro and coming to Burlington,” he added, “and we’d be leasing a line from them to provide backup and disaster recovery and a stable connection to Guilford Metro 9-1-1.”
In addition to the continuing partnership with Burlington, the Tri-Gig initiative has allowed the company to lay the foundation for what has evolved into a wide-ranging network of fiber lines across central North Carolina. But before the Tri-Gig contractor could begin to extend its fiber-optic tendrils, it first had to deal with a domestic crisis, of sorts, sparked by the sale of its parent company Segra.
In anticipation of this change in Segra’s circumstances, NorthState decided to forge a new venture with Lumos, a fellow Segra subsidiary that had its own fiber optic network based in Waynesboro, Virginia. In August of 2021, the two companies announced they had decided to strike out on their own, under the Lumos moniker, and would “embark on a bold growth plan” to expand the combined reach of their services.
Later that same year, NorthState announced its own plans to add more than 48,000 new customers to its fiber-optic network in and around Guilford County. Then, in February of 2022, the company declared that it would add more than 800 miles of new lines to bring its services to an additional 53,000 customers in Alamance, Guilford, Orange, and Wayne counties.
These corporate communications were followed in relatively short order by other announcements in a similarly expansionist vein. In April of 2022, for instance, the company touted a “partnership” with Orange County that promised to bring in 28,000 new customers. Then, in early August, it unveiled a $51 million venture with the potential to reach an additional 38,000 users in Forsyth and Randolph counties.
These rapid-fire revelations culminated on August 15 when NorthState and Lumos issued a joint news release to declare the consummation of their corporate marriage. It wasn’t long before this new union was blessed by some additional good news from the state of North Carolina, which had been tasked with distributing millions of dollars in federal funds to provide greater access to high-speed Internet services.
Under the American Recovery Plan of 2021, the federal government had set aside billions of dollars to install the infrastructure needed to extend broadband Internet access to underserved areas. In North Carolina, these funds have been funneled through an existing grant program dubbed Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT).
Thanks to the cash infusion from the federal government, this program attracted a great deal of interest from the grant’s would-be recipients in 2022. In Alamance County, the grant’s suitors included AT&T as well as Spectrum’s parent company Charter Communications.
Meanwhile, Lumos and another upstart called Lumen Technologies also made bids for a share of the available funds.
The county ultimately submitted all four of these entries to the state for consideration. But in the final analysis, it was Lumos that won over the grant’s administrators with its $5 million proposal to serve more than 700 homes and businesses in Alamance County.
According to the company’s application, Lumos will contribute $629,465 toward the installation of new fiber optic lines that are expected to bring high-speed Internet access to 734 grant eligible customers. The state, for its part, has pledged to contribute $4 million in federal funds, while the county has agreed to pitch in another $300,000 from its own cache of federal pandemic relief.
In addition to this project’s intended beneficiaries, Lumos has also promised to pick up the bill to connect another 546 customers who aren’t deemed eligible for the federal subsidies.
Sightings of Lumos work in Alamance County are growing. Mebane city manager Chris Rollins highlighted the company’s work along US 70 near the Mebane Community Park to his city council on Monday night.
Bruce Walker, an assistant county manager who vetted the four grant applications, noted that Lumos’ grant-subsidized infrastructure will ultimately be available to anyone in reach of the company’s lines – including those who already receive Internet service from some other provider.
Walker went on to conclude that area residents are bound to benefit from the entry of newcomers like Lumos and Lumen Technologies into the local Internet market.
“There’s a lot more competition,” he added. “In just a couple of years, we have gone from two companies to four.”