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Survey aims to prove rural Internet need to companies

When the sun sets in rural Fines Creek, the little community library gets bumping.

It may be after-hours, but any given evening, a steady stream of cars comes from miles to sit in the parking lot. It’s the newest take on the long-standing tradition of parking, except this love affair is between man and his computer.

 

The parking lot outside the tiny library is the only hotspot for high-speed Internet in the remote northern reaches of Haywood County.

“We actually put the wireless radio in the window of the library to make sure it reached the parking lot,” said Joey Webb, Haywood County’s network administrator.

Rural farming communities like Fines Creek in Haywood County aren’t the only ones being left behind in the world of high-speed Internet. Many of the ritzy, high-dollar resorts in the mountains are likewise just too remote to get high-speed Internet from the traditional carriers.  

Haywood County is in the midst of conducting a countywide survey to gauge unmet demand for high-speed Internet in rural areas, a project being carried out by a local broadband task force with support from the N.C. Department of Commerce.

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“The survey has really just reinforced what our suspicions were. We very much suspected there were underserved and unserved areas in our county when it comes to broadband,” Webb said.

Ideally, the survey would set off a gold rush of Internet providers trying to get in on the ground floor of a hot market. Whether the plan pans out is “the big question right now,” Webb said. The most likely candidate at the table will be start-up wireless Internet providers that use towers to transmit high-speed service, instead of the traditional cable and DSL backbones.

Still, “There is an investment you have to make. And the question is ‘Are there enough clients in the radius of the tower to offset the cost of the equipment?” Webb said.

“That is one of the purposes of our survey. It is deigned to show the need in those communities. It says ‘Here are people in these communities who say they would buy the service if it is available.’”

The high-speed Internet task force will hold its first open forum meeting with current and prospective Internet providers this month to share preliminary survey data and begin a dialogue.

Swain County is in the process of conducting a similar survey.

And Jackson County did one a couple of years ago — gathering demographic data on people eager for high-speed Internet, and then pitching the results to Internet service companies.

The survey inspired a local businessman who was born and raised in Jackson County to take matters into his own hands.

“Basically it showed us there was a great need in Jackson County for our service. It helped me determine there is a need in this county for it,” said Travis Lewis, who has launched the wireless Internet company SkyFi. He hopes to hook up his first customers in the next month or two.

Ultimately, it’s this sort of Appalachian bootstrap ingenuity that may finally solve the last-mile conundrum of high-speed Internet in the mountains.

“Areas like ours are the last to see anything, partly because of our topography,” Webb said. “When you are a large Internet provider and you are looking to invest, you get much more bang for your buck in areas that are non-mountainous,” Webb said. “And we can’t compete with the number of customers a larger area has.”

Speak up

Take the Haywood County broadband survey to help quantify the unmet demand for high-speed internet. Surveys can be taken at www.haywoodnc.net/broadband.

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