Business owners in the mountains of far-Western North Carolina say poor internet access hurts their ability to sell their products online. Local governments in the region are trying to step in and help – but it’s not been easy. BPR's Davin Eldridge has more...
At a small woodworking shop just a few miles east of downtown Franklin, Jimmy Pader is busy prepping his next order of custom mountain laurel handrails—a product exclusively grown and manufactured in Southern Appalachia. In just a few days’ time, he’ll be done, and ready to ship out another set, ready to be installed at a large home, this time in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania.
“It’s the rustic branch look," he says. "It’s popular these days. It’s that all these things are interwoven together, instead of just up and down, like the bars of a jail cell. People are trying to break away from that… That's horrible. Sorry for the pun.”
Pader is just one of hundreds of small business owners throughout the region whose livelihood depends on internet access. But like many of his counterparts, Pader isn’t exactly happy with the service he’s getting here in the mountains.
“All the tools I use are online tools," continues Pader. "Because those tools will provide me with the information I need to be like, ‘okay, I need to find… Mr. Bob at XYZ company… and reach out to him and be like ‘hey, here is my product. Would you be interested in that?’ I’m doing a lot of back and forth, so if I hit a snag, that snag will hold me up. I’ll hit ten of those one minute snags in a two hour period. And boy it’s hard to keep a thought process going after a certain amount of snags too, right? So it’s not just, okay I’m slowed down. Now I’m off task.”
Most of what Pader does isn’t actually manufacturing his product, but rather, marketing it online. That includes outreach; like getting product placement on websites, cold calling companies, or search engine optimization.
“One of the things I use is Goggle Analytics right? What Google Analytics allows me to do is it allows me to… But look how long it takes!? I clicked on it! Waiting… Loading.. Still loading. Is it finished loading? Okay, it’s finished loading. Oh nope.. Waiting. Loading… Still loading.. There’s nothing on the screen."
His efforts net him around two hundred inquiries a year for his product—all online—and he’ll end up taking on about half of those in orders. But with internet in the mountains as slow as it is, he can’t really rest on his laurels.
“This happens to me, ohh, I don’t know, ten times a day? It’s not just a time loss, it’s also a productivity loss, and twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to happen. Then it’s hard to stay on task on top of all that.”
Local governments are keenly aware of Pader’s problem, and are now taking steps to secure better internet for the region.
“I hear about it every day. It has been identified through surveys, casual conversations, interviews—it has been identified as the number one economic development issue in our region,” that’s Sarah Thompson, Executive Director of the Southwestern Commission—a council of local governments for the seven westernmost counties in the state. “Broadband is the infrastructure issue of this era. Because we are the agency that works directly with local governments within the region, it seemed appropriate for us to take a stab at a regional planning process. The time is right. Because every state and federal elected official and agency is hearing about this issue. We are doing a regional plan with the understanding that implementation projects are going to be very localized.”
While the need for better broadband internet has been an issue for a while, Thompson says the region as a whole has only been working together on the issue for about the last year or so.
“We have 200,000 people in our entire seven county region. So you can imagine that the return on investment does not exist as it does in an urban area. And our geography is a deterrent as well. So we have some unique issues compared to other rural areas, and we also have some unique assets.”
Macon, Graham, Swain, Clay, Cherokee, Haywood and Jackson Counties—are in the early stages of planning for better broadband deployment. It’s all part of a two phase approach to attracting more internet service providers, or, just better internet service in general. The first phase consists of each county doing their homework on the industry, understanding what it will need to make it worthwhile to expand here, and where in their communities it’s most feasible to invest in infrastructure themselves.
“We’re not going to have one provider come in and agree to suddenly service all seven of our counties. That’s just not how it works. But there’s a lot we can do as a region to lay the groundwork to incentivize providers to come in. And in a region of scarce resources it often makes sense to get together to get to that point. Also, large companies like to see regional cooperation.”
Once the first phase is all done, the region provides the private sector with its findings. Currently, each county is at a different stage in this phase, so it could take a while before the region is ready to make its move. For instance, Haywood and Macon Counties have formed broadband committees with their economic planners for several months, while Clay County is just starting out. “We’re doing a lot of the work for them, and that’s what the planning process is.”
Tommy Jenkins, Director of Economic Development in Macon County, says there are a lot more folks working from home in rural communities like his than many might think. After the service industry, he says Macon County has a strong entrepreneurial economy.
“There’s a definite need for improvement for better access. I equate broadband access to when electricity came to the area back in the day. It is that important to us to be able to educate our kids, for healthcare purposes, for economic development purposes—to just bring our region up to speed.”
But all of this is going to take one thing—money, no matter how anyone looks at it, according to Thompson.
“From what I understand, in a rural area, if we’re really going to achieve more and better service, we’re probably going to have to put some skin in the game and help fund the infrastructure.”
While nobody wants to put a figure on it, all parties involved say deployment could easily cost the region several million dollars, collectively.