Seven Springs area residents could be able to sign up for WiFi broadband internet service as early as February as part of a pilot program that could eventually spread high-speed internet countywide.

The Seven Springs areas is among several rural areas in the county currently lacking access to broadband internet.

The program would place antennas on towers or other tall structures to broadcast a WiFi broadband internet signal to customers.

The cost would be $39 per month. It will be lower if the customer buys the equipment needed to receive the WiFi signal.

And as part of the same pilot program, the city of Goldsboro will be able to provide free WiFi internet at the new sports complex being constructed near Meadow Lane Elementary School.

Wayne County commissioners Tuesday morning approved a $39,000 contract with Open Broadband of Waxhaw to conduct the pilot program.

The company completed a broadband engineering study for the county in August.

The contract calls for the company and county to have up to 12 months to determine if the pilot program is working. But such a decision could be reached much sooner, County Manager George Wood said.

The impetus for the project has been the need for businesses and agribusinesses in rural areas to have access to broadband internet, Wood said.

"The other big push, and we have talked about this with the board of education, the state Department of Public Instruction is moving in the direction of going to eBooks instead of paying for all of these textbooks," Wood said. "In doing that then these children, most of them have devices. The board of education will make it (devices) available to those who cannot afford them."

If these children are living in rural areas now, then they would be at a disadvantage because they would have to travel to a WiFi hotspot, he said.

"Ideally getting this deployed countywide, at a reasonable enough speed, then we would take care of the problem for all of the children," Wood said. "In North Carolina counties are not allowed to get into the broadband business. That is not the case in other state.

"But because of that in North Carolina it has created problems in a lot of rural counties and rural areas because you may not be able to make the business case for somebody to come in and deploy broadband."

The better and cheaper technology to deploy in those rural areas is wireless internet, he said.

Using that technology, antennas are mounted on large towers, such as water towers, grain elevator or cell towers, and the signal is broadcast out to a customer, he said.

Typically such a setup covers an approximately four-mile radius from the antenna site, he said.

Since the county cannot provide the service it has been working with the state to find a way to provide broadband across the county, he said.

At the recommendation of the state, the county conducted a survey to determine were residents were having difficulty getting broadband.

"In some case, people may have it, but it is dial-up," Wood said. "Or it is very slow. So we not only asked them (in the survey) do you have it, but even if you have it how satisfied are you with it?"

Wayne County Planner Chip Crumpler then used a geographic information system application to pinpoint clusters of people who are potential customers for an internet company, Wood said.

"Then he overlaid that with all of the known water towers, cell towers, any type of tower that theoretically a company may be able to enter into a lease agreement with and get on that town," Wood said. "What that shows them then is this is a cluster of people who could be potential customers, and here is a nearby water tower or whatever that would cover that area."

Once that process was completed, the county sent out a request for information for companies that might be interested in undertaking the project. A meeting was held with the five or six companies that responded and representatives of the state broadband office.

Two companies, including Open Broadband, expressed an interest in moving forward, he said.

Open Broadband has projects underway in several other areas in the state, Wood said.

"What they have proposed is a pilot program," he said. "This pilot program, we let them select the area because we were looking for where they thought would be the best area to start. They elected the Seven Springs area.

"So what this will do. We would help pay some of the cost for engineering and that sort of thing, about $39,000. The city has already agreed with will participate for up to $4,800 because one of the areas they want is to get free WiFi into the new sports complex. This is a one-time fee, We would not be doing anymore assistance as they fully deploy throughout the county."

If the pilot project works to the satisfaction of the county and company, then the WiFi would be deployed throughout the county over a several-year period, he said.