Broadband committee formed in Haywood

By Jessi Stone, Assistant editor | Jul 28, 2014

In a study conducted by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) last year, results showed that only 15 percent of respondents in western North Carolina enjoy Internet access that meets the Federal Communications Commission's minimum speeds.

Those conditions are not conducive to attracting new industry and growing existing businesses in Haywood County. To address the lack of broadband access, a committee has been formed in Haywood County to examine and expand broadband capability for local residents and businesses in the mountains.

While Haywood has broadband access, the bandwidth is limited and doesn’t accommodate the growing need. In general terms, bandwidth means the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a short amount of time.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone serves on the county economic development authority and has been pushing for several years to get better broadband capabilities in the mountains.

“Every time I talk to a perspective employer, their first or second issue is broadband access and the amount of bandwidth we get,” he said at a recent Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen meeting. “In today’s world, broadband access is just as important as water and sewer… We pay more for less than anywhere else in the country.”

The broadband committee is made up of DeSimone, Maggie Valley businessman Jim Blyth, two Haywood County commissioners, county IT employees and EDC Director Mark Clasby.

The committee will be gathering information about the current service available, needed infrastructure and creating a possible client base. DeSimone said the committee would have a booth set up at the Haywood County Fair in August to pass out questionnaires about residents’ current access.

In addition to meeting industry needs, DeSimone said there were a number of people working for large corporations around the nation who want to semi-retire in Haywood County and work from home. However, they need more reliable broadband to work from home in Haywood.

With the current infrastructure available, he said current local providers can only offer 3 to 6 megabits of broadband, and residents are paying the same amount most people pay for 20-50 megabits elsewhere. The idea is to be able to have providers offering 20 to 30 MB of broadband.

“This is about economic development, it’s about opportunities for residents and businesses and it’s about options — the more options we have, the better off we are,” DeSimone said.

He said he was in the process of talking to current and perspective providers about what issues they face in offering better broadband services. If more providers can offer services in Haywood County, rates would begin to decrease because of competition.

In 2011, North Carolina received about $255 million in federal stimulus grants to extend broadband throughout the state and construction began on a new fiber optics line that runs run from Enka to Sylva, directly through Haywood County along U.S. 19/23.

DeSimone said that project was like installing the major highway, but now exit ramps need to be built to get the service out to the rural communities.

Haywood County owns a fiber optic line that runs from Haywood Community College to the sheriff’s office in Hazelwood, but it’s not as easy as connecting the Internet to that line. As he’s dived into the process of getting better service, DeSimone said that line would have to get connected to service in a hub like Atlanta to make it active.

“I’m working with Charter and trying to find out what it would cost to get a 10 gigabit pipeline in Atlanta pumped through the line the county owns,” he said.

Providers like Charter and AT&T own their own fiber lines, but other smaller providers like Mountain Cable have to buy smaller lines.

DeSimone said the smaller providers have to pay premium dollar just to offer two to three gigs at a time.

“If we can get a 10 gig pipeline, we could then provide service at cost,” DeSimone said, adding that any provider could use the pipeline to offer more bandwidth to customers at a cheaper rate.

The committee had its first meeting in July and will plan a second meeting in early August. DeSimone said he doesn’t know yet how any of this would be funded yet but there are some grants out there that could help.