As the number of digital devices and demand for high-speed internet grows for individuals and businesses, the question of how to achieve greater reach continues to be asked. The answer, while not easy, appears to be emerging in partnerships and unique efforts throughout Western North Carolina.
“The needs are changing,” said Hunter Goosman, the executive director and CEO of ERC, an Asheville-based nonprofit that provides fiber-based network services to WNC. “Not only are more products being carried over fiber-optic cables, for example, increasingly your phone is an internet-based product and you get unlimited local and long distance calling as a standard option. And, secondly, home entertainment options like movies or streaming music are internet driven, but also when one considers economic development and jobs, having high-speed connectivity is a must.”
According to FCC reports, North Carolina as a whole ranks ninth in the nation in broadband deployment. But leaders realize it will take teamwork to bridge the digital divide and universal access remains the goal. Only 1 percent of those without access live in urban locations, while 89 percent of those without access – nearly 640,000 people – live in sparsely populated or rural areas, according to FCC 2016 Broad Progress Report.
In June, Gov. Pat McCrory released a statewide broadband plan that was developed by the Broadband Infrastructure Office within the N.C. Department of Technology. The plan offers specific recommendations to foster broadband deployment and adoption. Feedback was gathered from more than a dozen stakeholders’ listening sessions with nearly 80 subject matter experts, and a survey of 3,500 local leaders.
The plan says two common themes were evident: “active and engaged communities and their partnerships with private sector providers are the biggest factors in bridging existing digital divides.”
“We really found that having a plan and encouraging communities to be active participants in the development process can make a big difference,” said Jeff Sural, the director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office with the N.C. Department of Information Technology.
Sural said recommendations from the state plan focus on lowering deployment construction cost, expanding access for K-12 students at home, preparing a 21st century workforce, and increasing small business adoption and use. The plan also looks at ways to enable new health care technologies and provide the necessary tools to public safety responders to ensure safety of the state’s citizens.
“Creating this access is always a battle with the future as new devices come on the scene and there is more and more need,” Sural said. “We really encourage communities to have a plan that covers what do you want out of broadband? More citizens served? What is important? And we work through different steps with communities on how to get funding and reach out to local providers to see what might be possible. We think a little planning is helpful to know what your area needs and what it should look like. Our office can help with that and we join in the planning process.”
The FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report showed Buncombe County as the leader of Western North Carolina with a zero percentage of population without broadband access. Haywood and Henderson were close behind at 0.01 to 0.18 percent. Several WNC counties are between 0.36 to 0.74 percent. Two counties, Rutherford and Transylvania, were at 0.75 to 1 percent. Sural said it is important to remember these numbers are aggregated.
“They are aggregated to the census block,” he said. “So if an internet service provider represents to the FCC that it serves one household in that census block, the entire census block is considered to have access, or is considered ‘served by an internet service provider.’”
The state Broadband Infrastructure Office is working on ways to get more granular data to give them a more accurate location of those people who lack access.
“We’ve done this in some counties, for example Avery County, through surveys or by using a portal on our website that allows people to self-report (we called this the Lack of Access registry),” Sural said. ”We are also looking at other data sets to identify these locations.”
There are several different services in the mountains, from DSL, cable modem, fiber optic cable, wireless (point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, and cellular) to satellite.
“As far as businesses are concerned, high-speed broadband is available to a lot of Western North Carolina, but not all,” Goosman said. “There are pockets of great connectivity and many spots that require some effort to support. As homes go, or the ‘last mile,’ there are spots where connectivity is better than others. Unfortunately, there are many spots in less populated areas where broadband coverage is very much limited.”
Jonathan Wade, of Cullowhee, has struggled with internet speeds at his home in Jackson County. While speeds have improved, he said his service should have an upload speed of 3.5-5Mbs, but regularly averages about 500Kbs if it is working at all.
“There are number of possible solutions, and it would clearly involve various government and nonprofit entities working together to solve some of the last mile issues,” Wade said.
Working to find solutions
Different groups are making efforts to work together, as Wade suggests, to create solutions that make access available to all.
Goosman and his group have grown the ERC fiber-optic network from its small beginnings in Asheville to a 900-plus-mile network from Sparta to Franklin.
“Our extended network connects us directly with major Internet centers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Ashburn, Virginia (just outside Washington DC),” he said. “As to what is in the works, we continue to expand our network throughout Western North Carolina, wanting to create greater broadband connectivity options across the mountains.”
Many mountain communities like Haywood County have efforts in the works or have been working at the issue for some time. After receiving a $10,000 grant from the Southwestern Commission and $10,000 from the Haywood Advancement Foundation, the Haywood County Economic Development Council began work on a broadband master plan.
A request for proposals (RFP) from engineering firms for the master plans were due by July 15.
“There are many, many challenges to this effort,” said Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County EDC. “In the rural parts of the county, the capital investment can be large and the return on investment takes time when you don’t have population density. We keep chipping away, and we think the RFP will give us a blueprint.”
Another effort in the region is led by PANGAEA. The nonprofit internet service provider’s fiber network has expanded to 200 miles and serves major arteries in Polk and Rutherford counties. After a successful pilot project in downtown Tryon last year, a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission enabled PANGAEA Public Wi-Fi to expand to the downtown business districts of Chimney Rock Village, Lake Lure and Saluda. This network expansion was completed on March 31 with such efficiency that grant funds remained, allowing PANGAEA to extend Public Wi-Fi to downtown Columbus and Tryon’s Harmon Field. Work on those projects will begin this summer.
“We are pleased to bring PANGAEA Public Wi-Fi to Tryon, Chimney Rock Village, Lake Lure, Saluda and soon to downtown Columbus and Harmon Field,” said Ron Walters, executive director of PANGAEA Internet in a company press release earlier this year. “By coming in under budget on the initial network, we are able to extend the network to these additional locations.” Walters pointed out that there is no charge to use PANGAEA Public Wi-Fi in any of the areas where it is available.
PANGAEA is able to focus on specific community needs.
“We’re always looking at issues we can work on,” Walters said. “Partnerships between public and private groups have really made things possible.”
Private business investment
Recently AT&T announced it is bringing gigabit internet speeds to even more North Carolina markets, including Asheville and Hendersonville. The AT&T Business Fiber will allow businesses to download and upload up to 1 gigabit per second.
“For years, we have offered business customers gigabit connections, but through AT&T Business Fiber, we are speeding deployment of these high-speed connections to our business customers, offering fast and reliable network solutions to stay connected and competitive,” said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina in a press release of the announcement. “As a result of the pro-investment business climate created by North Carolina’s leaders, we are investing heavily in our fiber-optics infrastructure, deploying increased speeds to both business and residential consumers across the state.”
Internet speeds up to 1Gbps means businesses can: download 8,000 word processing documents in 1 second, download a two-hour high definition video in 36 seconds, and backup or restore a 1 terabyte hard drive in almost three hours, according to AT&T.
Asheville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kit Cramer said in the AT&T press release: ““Investment in the region’s technology infrastructure is critical to keeping our mountain communities competitive and attracting the jobs that will deliver sustainable and environmentally responsible growth. The availability of fiber optic services and networks helps ensure that the greater Asheville area competes on a level playing field with North Carolina’s large metro areas, as well as other cities throughout the country.”
Those working on the issue of high speed internet say the future holds promise along with a need to realize it will take time and joint efforts to get there in all areas of the mountains.
“There are groups working today to support the continued expansion of high-speed broadband across Western North Carolina,” ECR’s Goosman said. “These meetings are taking place all across the mountains as more and more communities are looking for better ways to support this goal. It is my belief that we will succeed and bring faster internet services to the region, but we have to acknowledge that it is a process that takes time. It takes time because a lot of investment is required to fund this growth. Our communities are very engaged and knowledgeable about what it takes and the partnerships that are needed to support it.”
What is broadband?
Broadband is another term for bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be sent through a connection to access high-speed Internet. The more bandwidth, the more information a user can send or receive at any given time.
New state Broadband Plan
The North Carolina Broadband Plan can be found at https://ncbroadband.gov/wp-content//uploads/2016/07/asdffdsasaa.pdf
Stories from around WNC
AVERY COUNTY – Aggregated demand and mapped; conducting inventory assessment and assisting with USDA grant.
MCDOWELL COUNTY – A grant funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission has allowed McDowell County to create a new partnership with Skyrunner Internet to drive broadband availability expansion in area. This new development comes as a result of the strategic planning by the McDowell Chamber of Commerce, the McDowell Economic Development Association, McDowell County, and the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
YANCEY COUNTY – Residential customers can get 500 megabits-per-second connections thanks to successful USDA Grant Deployment.