For many Swain County residents, waiting until 2020 in hopes Frontier Communications will be able to provide them with any kind of broadband internet service is not a realistic option.
Selling off a high-speed internet system of fiber optic lines in Sylva that belonged to the now-defunct Metrostat Communications is coming up short.
The 10-year-old company provided Sylva high-speed Internet and phone service until going under late last year. Metrostat had about $250,000 in outstanding economic development loans with Jackson County and town of Sylva.
Metrostat had put up its fiber optic lines as collateral. The county and town are in process of selling off those fiber lines — but it appears even if they manage to sell them they won’t recoup the full balance owed on the loan. Metrostat’s former system also includes towers that provide high-speed internet service via wireless signals to customers many miles away.
Frontier Communications Co. recently notified Sylva town leaders that the company isn’t interested in making an offer on Metrostat’s network after all. That would appear to leave BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County businessman Phil Drake, as the most likely buyer of the defunct company’s assets.
BalsamWest has a 300-mile network of fiber optic lines in the far west designed to bring high-speed access not otherwise available in rural, remote counties. While BalsamWest provides a backbone, the cost of building the “last mile” to businesses wanting to hook on to the high-speed lines has proven a hurdle, and as a result the network hasn’t been tapped as well as it could.
Metrostat’s network of fiber through Sylva’s central business district and wireless towers reaching outlying areas could bring solve some of those “last mile” issues and bring new customers to BalsamWest’s table.
Ironically, Metrostat owners Robin and John Kevlin cited BalsamWest’s combination of grant-funded, public-private partnership that enabled the company to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties as a major reason for Metrostat’s demise. The large-scale nature of the telecom business made it difficult for small start-ups serving only hyper-local areas.
The county was hoping to unload the entire network, which also includes towers to deliver high-speed internet signals wirelessly to customers several miles away, but might reconsider.
“I’ve recommended we sell this entire enterprise rather than break it into components,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week. “But, maybe it would be best to break out some parts.”
Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware has asked commissioners to let him lease a tower on Kings Mountain that once beamed out high-speed wireless internet service so he could provide internet to his guests.
Metrostat Communications, the company that pioneered the advent of high-speed Internet in Sylva, will close Dec. 30.
“We’ve been through the screaming, the upset, and we’re at the point we know this is the best decision we can make,” said Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat with husband John.
Six Metrostat employees will lose their jobs. At one time, the company had 20 employees, but the ever-more difficult economy and increasing competition had taken a toll.
Metrostat was founded in 2002 in Sylva to solve a business problem for the Kevlins’ software company, located on Main Street, which they later sold. The couple needed high-speed Internet, as did other businesses in Sylva’s downtown. After identifying the critical need, they filled it for themselves and others by laying fiber optic cables and selling bandwidth to customers. The Kevlins declined to specify how many accounts they currently manage but described their service as extending throughout Sylva’s downtown area.
The business start-up was a brave foray into a market dominated by big companies such as Charter and Verizon. But here in Western North Carolina, Metrostat also found itself competing against a grant-funded, public-private partnership forged to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties in the far west.
The couple pointed to BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County private businessman Phil Drake, as Metrostat’s major competitor and most daunting business hurdle.
Though repeatedly emphasizing that they did not want to sound bitter or angry toward BalsamWest, the couple said Metrostat simply could not hold its ground against the larger company. Initially, BalsamWest was going to lay a fiber backbone through the mountains and allow smaller companies such as Metrostat to be the actual service providers. But BalsamWest began directly selling service and cherry-picking the customers, undermining Metrostat’s business model, they said.
“We needed the big customers, then BalsamWest came in, supposedly doing the ‘middle mile,’ and they started taking over our last-mile customers,” John Kevlin said. “And any grant money that came into Jackson County, they got 100 percent. I put my personal fortune into (Metrostat), and I got killed.”
Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest, expressed sadness that Metrostat was closing down.
“I do regret that they were not able to sustain it. John and Robin did a very good job in helping this community and region. But I don’t think that falls back on BalsamWest,” the former president of Southwestern College said. “I feel for them. This is a very hard business, and it is changing very, very fast.”
For his part, Groves emphasized that BalsamWest’s business model extends far beyond Sylva where Metrostat focused its efforts.
“We’re trying to put a base in for economic development for this region, for the six western counties,” Groves said.
Groves said the initial goal, the building of the “middle mile,” was accomplished through the use of private money. Connecting the schools, Groves said, did result in BalsamWest tapping grant funding.
In downtown Sylva where Metrostat was known for providing good, fairly priced service, business owners were upset by the news they must now find another Internet carrier. Metrostat users received a Nov. 21-dated letter Monday morning via the postal service that explained the situation.
“Sustainable funding for an independent local utility requires long-term resources and support that we have not been able to identify,” the Kevlans wrote. “While we all love what Metrostat does, we simply do not see a financial path forward to continue operating.”
“I called them and said, ‘What do we need to do to keep you in business? Pay another $30 or $40 a month? Let us know, we’ll rally the troops,’” said Bernadette Peters, owner of City Lights Café in Sylva. “But it was too late. I’m not sure that they realized what people would have done to actually keep them here.”
Amazingly, in this day and age of questionable customer service, Peters said Metrostat was terrific because “you could call them if the server went down, and you’d actually get a call back.”
John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee on Main Street and a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, said he hated to see “hardworking people like Robin and John and all of their staff lose their jobs, and the community lose such superior service. We’ll never replace them.”
That said, Bubacz was anxious to emphasize that despite some recent business closings — Annie’s Naturally Bakery, Metrostat and a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on N.C. 107 that seemingly disappeared overnight last week — Sylva’s downtown is still doing well.
“No, downtown is not dying,” Bubacz said.
Organizers of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championship in 2013 have a short-term fix for getting telecommunication capabilities into the Nantahala Gorge, but have yet to find a long-term solution for business owners and residents there.
BalsamWest FiberNet, a company jointly owned by Macon County businessman Phil Drake and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has already dug in fiber along the railroad tracks traversing the steep-walled gorge. It is part of the 225 miles of fiber built and owned by BalasmWest in this section of Western North Carolina. BalsamWest currently provides the Nantahala Outdoor Center, located along the railroad tracks, with high-speed connectivity to the outside world. The service isn’t inexpensive and other businesses in that remote area west of Bryson City haven’t been as lucky.
BalsamWest CEO Cecil Groves said that the fiber company could, however, provide 21st-century internet for everyone’s use during the games. This service will be available only on a temporary basis, he said last week.
“We can’t do it permanently, but we can for that short amount of time,” Groves said. “Once this is over, there’s not enough demand for us, or probably another carrier, to bring (the technology) fulltime. But for the event, we can help.”
BalsamWest’s willingness to hookup the Gorge might literally be saving the event for organizers of the kayaking freestyle world championship.
Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012 — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected.
Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.
During the search for serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, when dozens of news organizations from across the nation and beyond swooped into the region to cover the manhunt, only one news organization had the technology to communicate from the Gorge area. There was suspicion then that Rudolph, who was later captured in Murphy while pilfering a grocery store Dumpster for leftovers, was holed up in one of the caves dotting the landscape of the Gorge.
CNN reporters had a van equipped with a satellite phone, allowing them to keep viewers somewhat abreast of events that didn’t develop as the manhunt dragged on (for a long five years or so during the late 1990s). They’d occasionally loan the phone out to desperate colleagues affiliated with other news organizations, who needed to alert their editors of Rudolph’s non-capture, too.
The situation hasn’t advanced much in the intervening decade for business owners and members of the Nantahala community such as Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company. Kastorff is helping to organize the world championship. She said that one of the commitments made by the organizing committee was to develop a long-term economic incentive for helping to host the championships — broadband capability was chosen.
“It is disappointing,” Kastorff said. “When the event is over, there will still be nothing there for the community — we are the last mile, literally and figuratively, for North Carolina.”
There’s not likely to be an easy answer anytime soon for the seven or so miles of dead zone. Enter the Nantahala Gorge, and cell phones and internet connections stop, the result of the steep, rocky walled gorge-area blocking modern communication abilities.
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.
Cecil Groves, former president of Southwestern Community College, is the new CEO of BalsamWest FiberNet.
Groves, who had moved to Texas to be near family, replaces David Hubbs, who announced he was leaving to pursue personal
Thanks to a collaborative project called WNC EdNet, high-speed Internet will become a reality for all public and charter school classrooms in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, along with the Qualla Boundary.
WNC EdNet recently got the go-ahead to connect The Highlands School — the last remaining school to join the regional network.
As late as 2000, schools in Western North Carolina could only transmit 1.5 megabyte per second. Now, schools with fiber can enjoy 100 megabyte per second connections.
Once these high-speed connections are in place, star pupils from far-flung schools can join together in a virtual classroom to take advanced courses that aren’t normally offered at their own schools. Live video will allow for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.
“It’s not like an online class,” said David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, which implemented the WNC EdNet project. “You’re speaking to or interacting with a teacher in real time.”
Linking up to the state network creates access to The North Carolina Virtual Public High School, which already offers 72 courses including Advanced Placement and world language classes.
The widespread reach of fiber across North Carolina to even the most rural schools holds the promise of creating a level playing field for students, according to Bob Byrd WNC EdNet project manager.
“That’s our big push now, to narrow that digital divide,” said Byrd.
Moreover, fiberoptic technology makes professional training more readily available for teachers. Once colleges are hooked up to the statewide K-12 network, student-teachers at Western Carolina University or other colleges may observe teachers in actual classrooms without interrupting lessons.
Being on the same fiber network also decreases overhead for school systems, which only have to pay one Internet bill for all their schools, Hubbs said.
The WNC EdNet project has traveled down a long road to get to where it is now.
Nearly 60 schools have been hooked up to their central office in the county via a fiberoptic line, which makes broadband Internet possible and also provides an important backbone for communication between the school district office and individual schools.
A separate project by a nonprofit called MCNC is in turn connecting these school district offices to a statewide fiber network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Now, MCNC is also working on linking colleges up to the state network.
WNCEdNet piggybacked onto the larger BalsamWest project, which has installed hundreds of miles of fiber underground to promote economic development in the Western North Carolina.
The mountainous terrain was a major obstacle BalsamWest had to overcome while installing equipment underground.
“The very things that we love about our rural area create challenges for technology,” said Hubbs.
Constructing in the remote area between Cashiers and Highlands was another challenge. BalsamWest had to speak individually to every property owner to get permission to build.
“We had more private easements between Cashiers and Highlands than we did everything else put together, over 300 miles,” said Hubbs. About 15 grant applications had to be submitted to lock down funding for the $6.1 million WNC EdNet project. The project was partly funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, which chipped in $2.2 million, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which contributed $1.7 million.
Even with 12 different partners — including Southwestern NC Planning & Economic Development Commission, the Western Region Education Service Alliance, seven school districts and three colleges — WNC EdNet was smoothly coordinated.
A similar project in eastern North Carolina had failed due to infighting, according to Leonard Winchester, chairman of the WNC EdNet technology committee.
WNC EdNet coordinators were asked to come to Raleigh and explain how their particular project ended in success. Winchester said cooperation was key.
“We had a group of people that trusted each other,” said Winchester. “That trust, you can’t give to somebody else.”