County leaders have publicly lamented the lack high-speed Internet service in rural areas and have partnered with the N.C. Department of Commerce to conduct a survey of unmet demand.
But they were ultimately unwilling to extend an economic development loan to Vistanet, questioning whether the business venture would meet the job-creation criteria to qualify for such a large sum.
Vistanet, which recently launched wireless high-speed Internet service in parts of Haywood County, wants to expand into Jackson County. The company beams an Internet signal from towers, considered a more cost-effective way of reaching rural areas where there’s otherwise not enough customers per mile to justify the cost of running fiber, cable of DSL infrastructure. Still, Vistanet CEO Andrea Robel said the loan was needed to cover the upfront cost of the equipment.
She took her request this month to the county commissioners, who double as the county’s revolving loan committee. Commissioners denied the application last week.
The seven jobs Robel said she would create fall far short of the job-creation criteria for that size loan — seven jobs would technically only be eligible for a loan of $70,000. Robel’s request, if it had been granted, would have been be the largest loan the county has ever given from its revolving fund. Moreover, the county only has $500,000 currently available in the fund.
“I don’t want to speak for the commissioners,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “I just think she’s got a difficult story to convince commissioners to invest that kind of money.”
The last time the county granted an economic development loan to an Internet service provider, the company defaulted. The county was handed the title to a network of fiber lines along with a wireless Internet tower that had been put up as collateral for the loan. The equipment was sold off for a fraction of its worth, meaning the county did not recoup what it had extended to the company.