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Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:59

High-speed internet project plods along

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The all-important push to bring high-speed internet to Western North Carolina generated a lot of optimism earlier this summer when the town of Waynesville and the Land of Sky Regional Council entered into an agreement with the goal of expanding high-speed internet service to the area. 

The LOS is a multi-jurisdictional Asheville-based organization that helps local governments administer programs supporting economic and workforce development. In June, the town contributed $4,877 toward a $35,000 effort to manage the project with the goal of convening a steering committee, gathering and analyzing regional data, and drafting a Request for Qualifications designed to attract vendors to deliver high-speed gigabit internet service to the area. 

But on Sept. 27, Waynesville Alderman Jon Feichter — the town’s representative on the LOS steering committee — reported to the board that an RFQ intended to identify a consultant to manage the project only received two responses by the Sept. 22 deadline, which has now been extended to Oct. 3. 

“I’d say the general consensus is yes, there is a little bit of disappointment that only two responses were received,” Feichter said. “However, this has not dampened enthusiasm for this project among the steering committee even a little bit. In fact, after our field trip to Chattanooga this past Friday, I’m even more enthusiastic than I was before.”

Chattanooga has been a model city for others seeking high-speed internet. 

Back in July, Feichter said that consumers and businesses in Western North Carolina pay more for broadband, and receive inferior service compared to the rest of the state, and that closing the gap would help “level the economic playing field,” opening up telecommuting opportunities for Haywood County residents. 

High-speed internet of the kind called for in the agreement would deliver data at remarkable speeds, allowing a two-hour HD movie to be downloaded in just 25 seconds. Currently, the average speed of most Americans makes that process take more than 70 minutes. 

Speeds of this magnitude, Feichter said, are for much more than binge-watching Hulu. 

With the large file sizes that have become common in emerging hi-tech industries — like distance education, global collaborative research, hi-def video production and telemedicine — high-speed internet is more of a necessity than a luxury. 

“It’s the water and electricity of the 21st century,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said during the Sept. 27 meeting. He went on to say that he hoped this effort would in the future be remembered alongside other such momentous infrastructural achievements of the town like the purchase of the watershed in the 1920s and subsequent rural electrification. 

However, just like those watershed and electrification projects nearly a century ago, installing the infrastructure needed to provide the type of internet capacity demanded is expensive — and made all the more so by the region’s mountainous and rocky terrain. 

In fact, those obstacles may be the reason only two responses were received — well-qualified consultants may believe the project to be so expensive that the RFQ they ultimately issue to service providers will likely attract no one and end up being a tremendous failure to which their name will be forever tied.

“I don’t think this is the case at all,” Feichter countered. “On the contrary, one of the best aspects of this process is precisely that the expense will be shouldered by the service provider(s) and not the municipality. My strong suspicion is the lack of response is likely a function of the amount of money being offered ($35,000). It would not surprise me if we have to increase that slightly in order to  broaden the appeal, but at this point, I am happy to see what happens with the extended deadline.”

Feichter went on to say that to his knowledge, increasing the consulting fee has not been discussed, but he thinks project stakeholders are content to wait and see what happens with the extended deadline.

The LOS hopes by extending the deadline for consultants to submit their qualifications, it will have a broader base of candidates to choose from; hiring is still expected to take place in November, and an RFQ is expected by April or May 2017. 

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