The need for stronger internet service in the Western North Carolina mountains has one national advocacy group pushing local governments in the region to take lead.
Chris Mitchell is the director of community broadband internet initiatives at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—a D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on policy and advises local governments in matters of autonomy. He says rural municipalities are increasingly lacking in the realm of broadband internet connectivity.
“There’s so much need to improve high-quality internet access, particularly in the Appalachians, in a lot of rural areas. In North Carolina, there’s been a split historically where I think the telephone companies have worked hard to make sure they’re the only ones that can get taxpayer dollars and they really wanted to limit competition.”
While many of the downtown areas throughout the mountains certainly have broadband internet options, the outlying areas which normally contain the majority of a county’s population, often don’t. As a result, the Institute recommends a few solutions to mountain communities to better their online presence, such as encouraging municipalities to start their own internet companies, or joining with others to create co-operatives.
“When you look at the threat communities face from not having broadband internet—the way people are moving away, and fewer people are willing to move in—these electric membership corporations really have to think about what they can do to make sure there’s a high quality of life.”
The Town of Highlands, in Macon County, is one such community. In 2015, the municipality began its own internet company, called Altitude Community Broadband. The town’s internet technology director, Matt Shuler, says the town was in great need of better internet solutions.
“Homes just weren’t selling. For economic development purposes, we had to find a solution.”
Now other municipalities are following suit.
The Land of Sky Regional Council, an organization that provides planning council to some 19 local governments in the region, recently applied for a $47,500 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The funds would help the council identify local assets and develop plans for broadband deployment throughout six communities including Waynesville, Asheville and Hendersonville.
Hunter Goosmann, of the Land of Sky Regional Council, says the project is necessary for the region to stay competitive, but it’s got a lot of work yet still ahead.
“The idea is to bring internet out to a lot of these communities that need it now, and to eventually go out farther to some of these more remote communities that have little or no solutions.”
Governor Roy Cooper recently recommended the Council for the ARC funding, saying the project would “support jobs and local businesses”.