By Richard Sullins |

A new wireless internet option is now available in portions of the downtown Sanford area, thanks to a partnership between the city, Lee County Government, and Downtown Sanford, Inc.

“Open Sanford” is available to persons visiting or working in the area that is bordered by Gordon Street on the west and Cole Street to the east, and that extends from Horner Boulevard along its southern boundary northward to the old Sanford Buggy Company parking lot just off Chatham Street.

The network began operation in 2018 and is now nearly complete, according to Lee County Information Technology Department Director Kyle Edwards. The first phase of the project is operational and providing wi-fi service through line-of-sight infrastructure, which can be expanded without the need for digging up streets or stretching new cable runs.

The network is powered by Open Broadband, a hybrid fiber and fixed wireless ISP company that is providing internet services to 18 other counties across the state, including Chatham, Wake, and Wayne.

It makes use of fixed wireless technology, a high-speed wireless internet service that is becoming commonly used in rural and underserved areas. The service is sent from a main access point that is usually equipped with high-speed fiber optic lines to individual receivers installed at businesses, farms, and homes. This provides up to a one gigabit fixed wireless internet signal to residential and business customers situated within the project area.

“We realized a few years ago, as the downtown revitalization was just beginning, how critical wireless connectivity could be,” Edwards said. “You know, it seems today that everybody has a device, whether it’s a smartphone or a tablet, and we all enjoy connectivity where we are..”

The initial costs for the existing downtown network are just over $33,790 for the hardware and installation, plus $10,800 per year split evenly between the city and the county for internet access and data analytics.

Individuals or businesses located within the coverage zone can now have access through this initiative to Open Broadband as an internet service provider from which they may choose.

Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Smith said that “we appreciate every opportunity to improve broadband access here in Lee County. Wherever feasible, we look forward to Open Broadband’s future service expansion within our county.”

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said that a desire to get people to come to the city makes the investment a worthwhile one.

“This connectivity and ease of access will enable even more and better experiences in Sanford. We want people to visit, stay, and enjoy themselves while shopping, dining, and taking in our downtown,” he said.

DSI sees Open Sanford as part of its overall mission.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the network and the possibilities it offers to open up Sanford and its downtown to those who already know us and are here on a regular basis, but also to those who haven’t been here before and don’t know about us,” said DSI Executive Director Kelli Laudate. “Our job is to make visiting Sanford easier, and this free wireless network really pushes the door open wider to a section of the city that has come storming back to life in just the past few years.”

Laudate said that the network will make visiting the downtown area and its stores more attractive for visitors.

“We’ve had as many as 300 to 400 people come for our farmers’ markets on Saturdays and our motels are averaging 75 percent or more full on Monday through Thursday evenings, largely from corporate travel,” she continued. “Giving those people a reason to visit downtown and see what it has to offer gives us a chance to make them want to come back.”

Growing the Open Sanford wi-fi network will be the next immediate focus, including expansion of the coverage footprint into the eastern end of Hawkins Avenue and making the district itself wider. But the project has the potential to do even greater things.

Edwards said that the County’s IT Department is working with the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office to identify who in the County is unserved and underserved with respect to broadband internet access. After those cyberspace deserts have been identified and mapped, the County may be able to tap into new federal and state dollars to create networks like Open Sanford.

Where could that kind of broadband service ultimately reach? Almost anywhere, says Edwards.

“If there’s an area where there is some kind of infrastructure already in place, like a communication tower or a water tower or something like that where we can get broadband service to, then we can do a whole lot with fixed wireless from that point of geography,” he explained. “And then, maybe it starts making sense to come to some other areas where there are a lot of wireless restrictions on older technologies. Fixed wireless gives us tons of new capabilities to do things in places like these that we’ve never been able to do before, so from that perspective, our only real limitation is our imagination.”