FOCUS Broadband, formerly called ATMC, is a member-owned cooperative providing communication services. While it is based in Shallotte, it operates in counties beyond Brunswick’s borders.
CEO Keith Holden has worked with the company since 1998, including previously as vice president of information systems. He’s led the cooperative’s efforts to connect underserved rural communities with new or faster internet service.
Below is a recent Q&A with Holden.
At the end of 2021, ATMC – which formed in 1955 – announced its name change to FOCUS Broadband. What did the shift mean for the member-owned cooperative, and what are those areas of focus now?
“The catalyst for rebranding is really a result of changes to our industry. Home telephone and cable TV are nearing the end of their product cycle and have been replaced by the importance of internet.
So our change from ATMC to FOCUS Broadband was made to better reflect our company’s evolution from a traditional telephone and cable TV provider to one that specializes in providing high-speed internet.
We’re still a local company with award-winning customer service, and that will always be our first priority, but we are building a world-class communications infrastructure too.”
What are some of the bigger fiber optic projects FOCUS is working on now in Brunswick County?
“Late last year, we announced a $100 million-dollar, multi-year project to convert the copper and coaxial networks in Brunswick County’s service area to a new 100% fiber optic network. This new network will eventually provide every Brunswick County customer with access to multi-gigabit speeds.
We’ve already begun upgrading many areas near Seaside and Calabash, and additional areas will be upgraded early next year. Our ultimate goal is to serve all of our customers with fiber optics, but that won’t happen overnight. Until then, we have made upgrades to our cable modem service allowing it to deliver gigabit speeds that are comparable to what we deliver on fiber.
We also recently completed a three-year project to provide fiber optic broadband to more than 3,500 homes in Boiling Spring Lakes. Boiling Springs Lakes was the latest area where we upgraded older copper facility with fiber optics. In the last five years, we’ve completed fiber optic projects in Oak Island, Holden Beach, St. James and Ocean Isle Beach.
We’ve also brought fiber optics to the county’s key business districts, such as Leland, Belville and Shallotte, and will be working to do the same in Calabash later this year and early next.”
The state and federal governments have invested money in recent years toward competitive grants for providers to push for more high-speed internet access. Has FOCUS tapped into those grants? Where are you seeing the greatest need to bridge this “digital divide”?
“Absolutely, FOCUS Broadband has worked very hard over the last three years to leverage both state and federal grants to expand our network to unserved and underserved communities. In fact, since 2019, FOCUS Broadband has secured over $100 million dollars in grant funding to expand our fiber optic network into rural communities across southeastern North Carolina.
We’ve won funding that will allow us to serve rural areas in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, Pender, Duplin, Hoke and Scotland counties. We’ve also recently won grants in Chowan and Perquimans counties in Northeast North Carolina, so we will soon be expanding our business up there.
Collectively, these grants will allow us to serve as many as 30,000 additional households who desperately need access to high-speed internet. Our mission is to serve the unserved, and we’re able to accomplish that through the grant funding we’ve received.
Grant funding certainly factors in to helping bridge the digital divide, but it has to be a holistic approach from providers and community leaders to getting families connected. We have been fortunate to work closely with so many counties in Eastern North Carolina to help close the digital divide. Many of these counties, even in 2022, have vast areas without access to high-speed internet. And when the pandemic hit, this lack of access made educating children remotely or working at home impossible for many.
We had a number of counties reach out to us for help, and when we did, we went to work assisting them with putting together Digital Inclusion Plans which allow them to better determine unserved areas and outline ways to reach those that are not connected.”
What’s the potential tie-in with economic development efforts with what FOCUS is investing in?
“Fiber optic internet is the fastest, and most reliable way of delivering the internet. Having access to FOCUS Broadband’s fiber optics gives small businesses and large businesses alike a competitive advantage because we have the ability to deliver internet that is on par with any in the country.
Businesses are expected to be able to compete online and participate in e-commerce, having access to broadband allows our local businesses to expand their platform and their customer base.
In addition to investing in fiber optics which allows businesses to thrive, we work closely with leaders in the areas we serve to ensure that industrial parks and schools have critical connectivity.
The shift to remote work has also come about because of the connection to the internet. Someone from rural Brunswick County can now work for a company from California because they have this connection.
Conversely, local businesses can have folks with specialized skills sets from another state and work together as though they are in the same office. When you have that ability, your opportunities and potential are no longer limited by your address. These benefits of access to fiber make it an important piece of economic development in the communities we serve.”
What’s next for you and for the cooperative?
“We want to continue to do what we’re doing. We will focus on building out the areas where we’ve won grant funding and establishing FOCUS Broadband as a community partner in these new areas.
We plan to turn up service for customers in Duplin County in the next few weeks and service should be available for many in western Pender County by the end of the year. We also plan to open a FOCUS Broadband location in Pender County by late next year.
We’ve grown by 55% since 2019. We’ve doubled our workforce in just a few years’ time. It’s been hectic, but we’re making a difference. We’re bringing services that are essential. And just as importantly, we are providing an opportunity for people to have a great career and raise their families right here in Southeastern North Carolina. This strengthens our community, and it’s something I am particularly proud of. We excited about what we’re doing, and we just want to keep it rolling.”