“What we try to do is light up communities where they don’t have any other choices,” said Judy Chapman, manager of Dnet Internet services based in Macon County.
Wireless has emerged recently as an answer to the “last mile” challenge rural areas face with high-speed internet access. Often, there simply aren’t enough customers per mile to make it worthwhile for cable, fiber or DSL companies to run their infrastructure into remote areas.
“They require density per mile or else they won’t build that out,” said Andrea Robel, CEO and president of Vistanet, the other high-speed wireless internet provider planning forays into Jackson. “It is extremely expensive.”
The higher one goes up the hollow, away from the city, the more likely it is that the service is nonexistent or inadequate. But beaming high-speed wireless internet through the air can be done with antennas and relays — far cheaper than running miles of cable to reach a smattering of houses — and is now seen as a financially viable business proposition by internet providers like Dnet and Vistanet.
In fact, it seems a sort of wireless arms race is emerging in Western North Carolina, to tap into those customers, and at the same time bring them a service that is hard to come by.
For some residents in Jackson County, unreliable Internet is a way of life.
Mary Jo Cobb, a 74-year-old resident of rural Tuckasegee, said when her Internet goes out, it reminds her of the old days in the mountains, watching television with her father when the screen would fade to snow because a squirrel or a stick interfered with the signal.
“That’s how I feel at times, I feel like there must be a squirrel on the line,” Cobb said. “That’s how we have to do it in Tuckasegee.”
But for others, such as her neighbor Thomas Crowe, a writer who works from a home office, having reliable Internet is essential for his livelihood. He said his service, provided over his phone line, fluctuates between tolerable and non-existent. And when it’s nonexistent, sometimes, it’s only a matter or minutes before the neighbors start calling and surveying as to whom still has a connection.
Crowe described the service as sporadic.
“Sometimes it’s very slow to the point you can’t even tolerate it,” Crowe said. “Sometimes there is no Internet and a little thing pops up and says ‘sorry can’t connect right now.’”
However, according to a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission, the neighbors in Tuckasegee are some of the lucky ones to even have Internet. There are 19 million Americans without high-speed access, and about 50,000 residents in 16 WNC counties, according to the FCC. (The number doesn’t include satellite service, which can be an option but is costly.)
But that number is drastically underestimated, according to Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network. The FCC’s estimate is based on information filed by telephone and cable internet service providers.
“What the companies report to the FCC doesn’t square with what’s on the ground,” Bowen said. “Preliminary evidence is that what the carriers are telling the FCC is exaggerated.”
To test their claims, Bowen has started an online survey, gathering Internet speed tests and personal accounts of Internet accessibility to build an accurate map of Internet coverage in the region. About 200 people have replied to the survey, and Bowen said some speed tests reveal that what is billed as high-speed Internet — a standard set by the FCC — may not actually meet the standard. (To take the survey, go to www.main.nc.us/bbmap.)
Often the connection is fast at downloading information but not at uploading data. That distinction may make the service adequate for the casual surfer but inadequate for someone attempting to work from home and upload large files.
“You can’t operate a business competitively if you’re not able to send large files,” Bowen said. “If you can’t upload, then you’re just a receiver not a producer.”
The Internet is not only a matter of convenience. As the Internet has become a tool of everyday life, connecting people to it, also connects them to basic services and economic and educational opportunities.
“We need to focus on solving the last-mile problem,” Bowen said. “That’s our primary focus.”
Dnet is a major player in the internet provider landscape in the far western counties, and now hopes to grow its footprint in Jackson County with wireless service. Dnet is already offering wireless Internet in some parts of Macon and Graham counties. Dnet’s first foray into high-speed wireless internet service in Jackson could be up and running in March with a high-speed, wireless Internet transmitter on a tower it acquired on King’s Mountain.
The King’s Mountain tower was initially controlled by Metrostat, a small internet provider in Sylva that also had a network of fiber optic lines. But Metrostat failed a year ago and the infrastructure was sold off — a process that took about a year to see through.
“We’ve been trying to move on this for some time,” Chapman said.
Under Metrostat, only one customer was using the high-speed internet signal beamed out by the King’s Mountain tower. Dnet hopes to get more customers on the tower.
Chapman expects the tower on King’s Mountain to be just the first of many in Jackson County.
Close on Dnet’s heels is a company hoping to provide similar wireless service. The startup company Vistanet just began offering high-speed wireless internet service in parts of Haywood County. It hopes to begin putting up towers in Swain and Jackson counties as soon as mid-summer, said Robel.
First, however, Robel wants to know where the demand is so the company can strategically locate its antennae’s that will relay the wireless Internet.
Robel is asking anyone potentially interested in high-speed wireless internet service participate in a survey on their web site.
“The more people we get signed up there, the faster we get out there,” Robel said.
High-speed wireless comes to rural Haywood
Vistanet has begun offering high-speed Internet service in rural areas of Haywood County that until now, have had few if any option on the high-speed internet front. From Fines Creek to Lake Logan, the company is reaching rural areas by beaming wireless internet signals from towers. To find out if it is available in your area, contact 855.847.8200 or 828.348.5366 or vistanet.co.