Work to bring broadband to all of North Carolina — including adding missing sections of fiber in the mountains — is well under way, leaders with a state nonprofit group said.
Construction on an important link from Enka to Sylva that will run through Haywood County is targeted for completion by early May, Tommy Jacobson, vice president of MCMN’s network infrastructure initiatives, told about 50 regional business and political leaders during a conference held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
North Carolina has received $255 million in federal recovery grants to extend broadband in the state, via MCMN (Making Connections in North Carolina).
The new fiber will help groups such as BalsamWest FiberNET in Sylva and other telecoms by providing them with additional capacity and making them more efficient. BalsamWest is a private entity that is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises. It worked independently to build a broadband infrastructure to serve Western North Carolina, putting in 300 miles of fiberoptic cable.
“Bandwidth demand will never go down,” Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises said of BalsamWest’s ability to use extra broadband capacity.
The missing piece now being laid in Haywood County has been described as critical to that county’s economic wellbeing by elected and business leaders: MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, has estimated such a connection would save MedWest alone at least half a million dollars.
Additionally, construction on an 18-mile stretch of fiber cable in Graham County, which will tie back into BalsamWest, is slated to start this summer. Jacobson said his group is working to get clearance to build through the Nantahala National Forest.
He dubbed the process “challenging,” dryly describing the U.S. Forest Service “as an interesting agency to work with.”
“Little can be done out here without public-private partnerships,” said Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest and the former president of Southwestern Community College.
Joe Freddoso, president and CEO of MCMN, agreed. He said the group used BalsamWest and Blue Ridge EMC (serving the state’s westernmost counties and north Georgia) as a model for expanding service to rural areas across North Carolina.
“That model was crafted here,” Freddoso said, “by a region that met its own need.