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Metrostat situation gets murkier as leaders hunt for silver lining

The fallout from Metrostat Communication’s going belly up keeps getting more complicated, with Jackson County commissioners learning this week that an Asheville company owns some of the defunct company’s fiber optic line.

Metrostat, a high-speed Internet and phone service company in Sylva, went under late last year still owing about $500,000 in outstanding economic development loans to Jackson County and town of Sylva. The county and town took possession of the fiber optic lines and other Metrostat assets, including a tower, which had been put down as collateral. But not, as leaders thought, all of the fiber optic line.

“Things continue to just pop up,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

It turns out ERC Broadband, a nonprofit, owns 12 of the 48 strands making up some of Metrostat’s fiber optic lines in Sylva along U.S. 23 and N.C. 107. ERC bought some of Metrostat’s fiber lines in 2006 for $147,000. ERC Broadband was a grant-funded initiative dating to the late 1990s to run a high-speed Internet backbone through rural mountain counties. ERC acted as Metrostat’s provider to link its own fiber lines to the greater Internet world, Wooten explained.

Jackson County and Sylva initially wanted to simply sell the entire system, fiber optic cable, the tower and other Metrostat equipment, to a single buyer at the highest price possible. Problem is, no buyers emerged — Frontier Communications Co. said it wasn’t interested, and then BalsamWest FiberNET made an offer then withdrew the proposal.

The only possibility left was Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware, who wanted only the tower on Kings Mountain, which once beamed out high-speed wireless Internet service, so that he could provide Internet to his guests. But, the county doesn’t want to sell Metrostat’s system piecemeal.

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So the county and town have been left searching for Plan B. Use Metrostat’s assets as the base to provide all of Jackson County with wireless Internet service. The dream includes linking the various emergency towers across the county to provide this blanket coverage.

The county manager said that means there could be an advantage to ERC Broadband’s sudden appearance in the what-to-do-with-Mestrostat game: the focus of the nonprofit is to further economic development in Western North Carolina, which could fit like a hand in Jackson County’s wireless Internet glove.

ERC Broadband could bring the technical expertise to the table Jackson County needs to try and use Metrostat’s infrastructure to provide countywide wireless Internet, Wooten said. A meeting between county officials and company representatives is scheduled for Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get our money back, but we may end up with something that is an asset to this community,” Wooten said.

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