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Haywood launches survey to access internet availability

The folks spearheading the effort to expand broadband access in Haywood County are thinking big. Gigabyte big. 

“Our goal is to make Haywood County a gigabyte community,” said Ron DeSimone.

 

The so-called gigabyte community might be a long shot for Haywood, but Simone thinks a baseline of 10 megabytes of bandwidth sounds reasonable. He estimates most of the county gets between three to six megabytes right now. 

“The rest of the world is on 20 to 50,” Simone explained. “Urban centers are actually between 50 to 100.”

Simone, who serves as the mayor of Maggie Valley, sits on a committee packed with government and business representatives and charged with bettering Haywood County’s broadband access.

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This is not an entirely new effort. 

“I’ve been working on this for a number of years,” said Mark Clasby, who chairs the broadband group and also heads up the Haywood County Economic Development Commission.

But since August, the effort has assumed new energy with the formation of the broadband committee. The most recent evolution in the effort was kickstarted by DeSimone.

“I kind of initiated it,” DeSimone said. 

DeSimone said that he regularly speaks with people considering a move to the Maggie Valley area and that those people regularly express concerns that the limited broadband access will not allow them to work from home via a computer, or telecommute. 

“Every time I talk to them, the first or second most important thing on their mind is broadband. They have found that we don’t have adequate broadband service,” the mayor said. “It’s integral to improving our economic development of the future. If we don’t do this we’re going to be behind.”

The broadband committee considers increasing bandwidth availability a necessary component for Haywood’s growth and future. Access to high-speed Internet is no longer a luxury, but is rather a must-have for a thriving community. 

“I look at this no different that the electrification of the 1930s or the expansion of the sewer service,” DeSimone said. 

Even now, measuring time in bandwidth, it appears the region is behind the curve. A quick step off the beaten path can quickly lead to slow Internet service, or no service at all. 

This is the problem that members of Haywood’s broadband committee are addressing. 

“Our needs are tremendous,” said Clasby. “Our goal is to provide better service to the unserved and the underserved — you’re talking about Crabtree, Bethel or Cruso, Fines Creek.”

Clasby said that the lack of access to high-speed connections puts Haywood residents at a disadvantage.

“In this world you need better service than DSL,” Clasby said. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line, and typically refers to Internet availability through phone lines.

But increasing the area’s broadband availability could be a tough sell. The infrastructure involved in expanding service is expensive, and Haywood’s population hasn’t proved attractive enough for the larger telecommunications companies.

“It’s all about the provider being able to make money. It’s plain and simple, that’s what drives them,” said Haywood County Commissioner Mike Sorrells, who is chairman of the Haywood EDC and also on the broadband committee. 

“It’s demand. Demand and supply,” said Clasby. “We only have 60,000 people in the whole county. The provider could spend the same amount of money in a larger area and have a better return on investment.”

To that end, the committee is launching a community survey to get a handle on how many Haywood residents are lacking service. The hope is that such data will be useful in attracting a service provider to expand access in the county.

“What we’re trying to do is quantify that demand,” Clasby explained. 

The survey formally kicked off Nov. 3, with Clasby laying out the project to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. He told them that the survey was a “great effort” and would take about two months. 

“There’s a lot of people here in the county that do not have access to the Internet,” Clasby told the commissioners. “We’ll create a map and then from that map we’ll show it to various providers.”

Swain County is also conducting surveys in an effort to quantify the need to up the bandwidth availability in the area. The results aren’t back yet, but Swain County Manager Kevin King said he’s expecting a verification of what he already knows is true for the rural community.

“There’s a big need,” said King. 

Jackson County did a similar survey last year. Like in Haywood, officials felt that the rural areas of the county were underserved.

“The tendency is, [providers] like to look at the commercial areas and the business corridors, those are kind of the low-hanging fruit, the most profitable,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. “But the residential gets left out.”

Jackson’s survey did not garner a tremendous response. About 100 surveys were returned. 

“Not an overwhelming number,” Wooten said.

Like Haywood, Jackson worked with the N.C. Department of Commerce. They made a map and shopped it around. 

“We were hoping that would generate some interest among some of the carriers,” Wooten said.

Currently, Jackson is still trying to increase its broadband access. There’s a couple of smaller providers that may be interested in discussing the possibilities, but service remains an issue.

“If you’re outside of the area that is served by cable TV and you’re outside in some of the rural areas, you probably lack service,” Wooten said. 

The broadband committee in Haywood is hoping its survey generates a bit more interest. In addition to being available soon on the Internet, there are plans to make the survey available at various government buildings — such as the Department of Social Services offices, or the senior resource center — as well as other public buildings, such as the library. The media will also be used to get the word out, and schools may be used in some fashion to facilitate informing the public about the broadband survey. 

“Anywhere we can get it out, we’re gonna get it out,” said Sorrells. 

During Clasby’s presentation before Haywood County commissioners, Chairman Mark Swanger noted that the survey would focus not only on areas that currently lack service, but also on areas that are unable to get quick enough service.

“A lot of people consider having access to the Internet with having service. You can get dial-up, but you don’t have decent access to the Internet,” Swanger said. “Speed is critical.”

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