That was the conclusion reached by members of the Broadband Information Sharing Group at a meeting held June 12 at the Macon County Public Library (MCPL).
Some 13 panelists including local and regional government representatives from Macon, Swain, and Jackson counties, no less than five internet service providers (ISP), and two community club broadband committees gave a packed audience their assessment of how and when broadband services would come to the majority of residents in Macon County.
Sarah Thompson, Executive Director of the Southwestern Commission, a council of governments representing seven counties in western North Carolina, set the stage.
“All of our preliminary surveys and data gathering indicate that a viable broadband internet infrastructure is the number economic development concern in our region,” she said.
The lack of broadband services also negatively affects the student/teacher population in Macon County, 23 percent of whom reported a lack of broadband/internet availability at their residence.
“That’s why we have so many students utilizing the computer lab at the Macon County Public Library and bringing their own laptops here,” said Charles Diede, Assistant County Librarian who coordinated the meeting.
The standard for broadband as defined by the Federal Communications Commission is internet service that carries a minimum of 25 megabytes per second download speed. Nearly 40 percent of Americans living in rural communities in North Carolina do not have access to broadband, according to the FCC.
Each of the ISP panelists provided those in attendance with a dazzling compendium of technical information on how broadband is provided, the state of technology today, and what’s on the horizon. All agreed that it would take a combination of fiber optic transmission lines and wireless service to get the job done.
Tony Deakins of the Otto Community expressed his angst at the inaccuracy of state survey maps for statewide internet service. “Their maps show 58 to 80 percent coverage, but our surveys show that 40 percent of Macon County is without service,” he said.
“I’d like to see a goal of 85 percent coverage for Macon with a minimum of 25 megabyte download speed and 3 megabyte upload speed,” Deakins added. “As it stands now, many home-based businesses can’t survive, fiber is too expensive, and people are just plain frustrated. What we need is an intermediary between the funders and the providers. Where’s the bridge between the two?” he concluded.
Joan Mackie, representing the Holly Springs Community, warned that the lack of broadband coverage in Macon was especially difficult for the elderly population.
“Health care systems can provide diagnostic services such as blood pressure, heart monitoring, and the like through broadband connections,” Mackie said, “but not with the current system in place.”
The biggest obstacle in providing broadband service to the mountains is the terrain, the group agreed. But inexpensive solutions such as point-to-point radio transmitters costing about $3,000 each are now available.
J.J. Boyd of Skyrunner Internet, an ISP serving nine western counties, said the technology has improved dramatically in recent years.
“Today, we’re able to provide up to 10 gigabytes (one gigabyte equals a thousand megabytes) of download capacity,” he said.
The radios operate via line-of-sight transmission with antennas that are virtually undetectable in the environment, according to Skyrunner.
Tim Will of Catalpa Partners told how he pioneered broadband service in Rutherford County to assist farmers in getting their product to market. He mounted antennas on water towers and showed farmers, a number of whom he taught how to read, to use computers in advertising their produce on line to vendors in Charlotte some 70 miles away.
“Rutherford County went from the 99th poorest county in the state to the 67th in just six years,” Will said proudly. Catalpa Partners also offers classes online to teach other farmers how to grow their businesses.
Thompson wrapped up the session by saying the Southwestern Commission will take all the information and surveys gathered to date to develop a request for proposal (RFP) by December 2017.
“The Phase One RFP will develop a plan for the region, provide training on issues, develop community assessment profiles and policies, determine implementation strategies and common routes for fiber routes, and the like,” she said.
Phase II of the study beginning in January 2018 will take all of the information gathered in Phase I and present them to the ISP providers and public and private partnerships to lay the basic groundwork for bringing broadband service to the region.