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Quenching the Thirst of a Parched County in a Broadband Desert

To outsiders, Evans County, Georgia, is best known for its annual rattlesnake festival, Vidalia onions and everyone’s favorite holiday dessert–it’s the fruitcake capital of the world! But to those that live there, they’re most familiar with the struggles of living in a broadband desert.

“Internet connectivity was a problem (in Evans County) long before COVID,” PACFiber (Pembroke Advanced Communications) Director of Operations Noah Covington said during Week 5 of the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast series. He noted how primary and secondary schoolers have long struggled to complete online homework, and college students have had to contemplate coming home for weekends at the risk of not being able to log-in to check online classes and assignments. That problem only expanded its reach at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic and learn-from-home mandates.

PACFiber made fiber-to-the-home deployments its mission in 2014. Expanding its portfolio from TV, voice and cellular to high-speed broadband internet access, PACFiber answered the call put out by its neighbors in nearby Evans County–a primarily rural county with 11,000 residents and little to no broadband connection.

Connectivity frustrations didn’t stop at students.

“Have you ever had a Vidalia onion? They’re the best onions you could ever eat,” Covington awed. “They write songs about these onions.”

Vidalia onions, one of Evans County’s claims to fame, require precise agriculture. In today’s world, precise agriculture relies heavily on pre-set functions and programs–all set and monitored through an internet connection.

“Farmers who can’t get wireless or decent internet service to their homes end up going into town to use their cell phones or get on a wireless connection in town so that they can set up their precision agriculture,” Covington explained.

Broadband connectivity in the 21st century is not merely a convenience. It is a necessity. PACFiber knows this.

To first expand into Evans County, PACFiber was awarded a 50/50 grant through phase one of the ReConnect Program. ReConnect phase two brought additional funding and PACFiber now has a coverage area that includes 2,500 unserved homes, or 6,000 people. PACFiber investments into Evans County alone now total $13 million dollars in combined grants and company matches.

“The hardest part was getting there. Once you get there, you can expand in the community to who needs service,” Covington said. “These are people who do not have service.”

The ReConnect program allows for a 5-year deployment timeline. Covington said PACFiber expects their Evans County coverage (50% of households) to be complete in four.

“You feel like a hero,” Covington smiled. “You go into these communities with your PACFiber shirt on and they treat you like a hero.”