A common frustration for residents throughout the mountains of Western North Carolina is the lack of high speed internet access. They now have a place where they can vent. BPRs Davin Eldridge has more…
Author's Note: a link to the survey is provided at the bottom of the article.
An online survey launched by the Southwestern Commission—a council of local governments for the region’s seven westernmost counties – has two goals. First, to identify the demand for internet on a regional level, and then determine areas where access is poor or nonexistent. More than 2,000 residents have already responded.
“Which is a great response,” said Sarah Thompson, executive director of the council. “We still need quite a few more to reach our goal.”
The goal is to get ten percent of households within each county to take the survey. Haywood County residents have barely begun to take the survey, while Graham County is already close to its target. It’s all part of a plan to attract more internet service providers, or to simply improve the access of internet services already available within the region. The survey marks the end of the first phase of that plan, says Thompson.
“It’s really in my opinion one of the most important parts of the process," she said. "You’re basically showing [internet service providers] that there is demand, it’s showing even when there is service it’s subpar. In order to move forward with projects, we have to have that data to back up the need. To show that there’s opportunities.”
The survey was put together with the help of consultants hired under contract by the commission, to the tune of $15,000. According to Thompson, this is one example of how the rural counties within the commission's jurisdiction can pull their resources together effectively, as all of them split the bill on the survey.
In the meantime, other work is being done by the seven counties, as consultants from the commission work to train the broadband committees they've formed. Each committee's task is to facilitate whatever each county needs to do locally to make it easier (and cheaper) for internet companies to come into the region.
“Which will educate us all on legislative barriers to expanding broadband," she said, adding that the committees are brushing up on the essentials--things like funding models, ordinances and policies, infrastructure--anything that will expedite the process. "The training is intended to add capacity to the region. Each county has a team of people educated on how to make this happen.”
As mountain residents continue to take the survey, and officials continue their training, Representative Kevin Corbin said there are other developments in Raleigh which might improve broadband deployment.
"We're making progress," he said. "Steady progress. Of course we've still got a ways to go."
Corbin, who works closely with the commission, sits on the Information Subcommittee of the House, co-chaired by Jason Saine (R-Lincoln). He says he's exploring potential sources of funding that local governments can access to pay for broadband projects.
"It's about the possibility of setting up some grants that can be applied for by either counties or towns, and they would partner with local providers who want to extend their coverage area," he said.
Corbin said the idea is still in its early stages, but already appears to be popular with many of his fellow Republican colleagues--most of whom, like him, represent mostly rural areas throughout North Carolina.
“My idea is to do it a lot like the Department of Commerce is currently doing economic develop grants,” he said. "Like the building re-use grants, that counties or towns can apply for to refurbish old buildings that provide workspaces for folks to come in and create new businesses, or expand their businesses. By doing that, it creates jobs. This would be not necessarily creating jobs, but would create internet access, which in turn could increase jobs, increase folks ability to work from home."
Corbin says this approach would optimize the service currently available throughout the state’s rural areas. He cited the BalsamWest fiber optic trunk line installed years ago throughout his district as an example of preexisting untapped assets applicable to his method.
"That is a source of high speed internet available in the region," said Corbin. "It's just not available to all."
The project, which was a joint venture by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County businessman Phil Drake, is one of the few sources of truly high speed internet in the region, yet very few communities in the far-west can access it, due to its often remote location.
"You'll hear it referred to as the 'last mile'," said Corbin. "We've got the internet basically to us. It's just a matter of getting it that last mile out to folks who don't currently have it."
If all rural communities throughout the state were given access to the entire amount of funding needed to make broadband widely available, Corbin estimates the figure would reach into the tens of millions of dollars. With about eighty rural counties in the state, that would be a huge undertaking, he admits.
"Right now doing something is a start," he said, adding that his idea wouldn't come to fruition until the 2019 session at the earliest. "How much would it amount to? I don't know. I wouldn't venture to guess. But we can at least get the ball rolling."
In the meantime, the most important thing mountain residents can do, if they want better internet access, is take the survey, he says. The deadline for the survey is the end of the calendar year.
Take the survey here: http://mountainwest.baat-campaign.com/campaigns/master