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Getting connected: Regional internet access on the upswing

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Tommy Calhoun of Whittier stares at a web page on his white Mac notebook’s screen. He is checking his email at Bubacz’s Underground, a coffee shop in downtown Sylva. Connecting to the Underground’s wireless Internet service is much more convenient for Calhoun than connecting to the Internet at his mountain home, where he has dial-up service.

“Its just faster,” he said while taking a sip of a cherry ginger ale.

Calhoun says he utilizes free wireless connections whenever possible and would like to see more downtown districts offer it.

“It’s already happening in places like San Francisco and downtown Asheville — that would be amazing if all towns offered wireless,” he said.

Across the country small towns are starting to invest in wireless Internet service for its visitors and local residents. Having the accessibility to connect to the Internet at any time and place is becoming as common as having cell phone service and is proving to be a great economic development tool for a community.

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“It’s a great amenity to any community that wants to attract visitors,” said Wally Bowen, executive director and founder of Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville. Mountain Area Information Network has been providing Internet service to businesses and residents in Buncombe, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties since 1995.


Online anywhere

When a visitor comes to downtown Waynesville or Sylva, a free wireless connection is available. By the middle of January, Bryson City will join the list of local communities that offer a free wireless connection.

“We have a lot of people coming downtown and we want it to be a more user-friendly downtown,” Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said.

By offering wireless service to its visitors and residents, Bryson City hopes to boost its image, he said. Swain County’s tourism development authority purchased the wireless equipment, which had a price tag of $7,000. The county’s chamber of commerce will manage the service.

When a visitor accesses the Internet in Bryson City, an area business’s homepage will pop up. The chamber plans to utilize local businesses’ web pages as a way to pay for the free service. Area businesses will pay a monthly fee for their web page to be the first thing a user sees when connecting to the Internet, Walker explained.

Walker says Bryson’s wireless service is a cost-effective way for local businesses to advertise.

“You can’t beat a deal like that,” he said.

Using the Internet as an advertising tool has Metrostat Communications, a Sylva-based Internet and software company, offering free wireless connections for Sylva’s downtown district. Metrostat allows visitors to connect to its wireless service for 20 minutes a day. Having access beyond that time frame requires a user to pay a fee for the rest of the day.

Metrostat decided to offer the free wireless connection because of the high number of tourists passing through the town, said Shane Burrell, president of Metrostat Communications.

“There’s not many companies doing what we are doing,” he said.

Metrostat is able to offer the free service because local businesses and residents are fronting the bill. Right now, Metrostat has about 930 users from the Sylva, Dillsboro and Webster areas connecting to its wireless network, according to Burrell.

Also, the company’s free service is widely used by downtown businesses such as Annie’s Bakery and the Jackson County Library. Metrostat’s connection is the only wireless service available for customers at these spots.

Even though a private company provides Sylva’s wireless connection, town officials recognize the importance of having wireless service.

“It is an asset for folks and tourists,” Sylva Town Manager Jay Denton said. “It’s an essential tool and not having wireless is going to hinder a town.”

Town officials applied for a $1,000 grant earlier this year to help Metrostat offset its costs for the free service; however, the town was denied the grant.

In Waynesville shoppers and businesses have wireless access as a byproduct of the town hall’s fiber optic system, said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “It’s not something the town did; however, it’s something useful for the downtown.”

But providing wireless service for visitors is not a top priority for the town of Franklin.

“We haven’t really discussed it,” Franklin Town Manager Mike Decker said. “We’ve decided to let that particular market take care of itself.”

However, some businesses in Franklin do offer a wireless connection for patrons. One Internet hot spot in Macon County is its library.

Patrons have a wireless connection throughout the whole facility.

“People stay all day and use our connection,” said Tracy Fitzmaurice, assistant county librarian.

She also says that by offering a wireless connection the library has increased its number of daily visitors.


Economic impact

While visiting Dillsboro several years ago, Teresa Dowd realized the town was missing something — a coffee shop and a place to check the Internet, she said. So two years ago she decided to open West Carolina Internet Café.

The café offers free wireless for laptop users but also houses four computers where customers pay minimal rental fee to access the web and print materials if needed.

Dowd says that her business allows visitors to maintain a connection with their job or family while traveling.

“Its like checking in on the kids while they are being watched by the babysitter,” she said.

A customer at the café can print out important documents or a boarding pass while enjoying a cup of coffee. Having the luxury of checking your email or researching places to venture to while on vacation is something that travelers are starting to expect. The good ole days of booking your hotel room two weeks in advance is no longer.

“More visitors are going online and researching things while traveling,” said Wit Tuttell, the director of public relations for the North Carolina Department of Commerce. “It’s a good service for visitors.”

Having visitors access a community’s or a business’ Web site while they are in town is a great advertising and promotional tool, Tuttell said.

“You can get them to stay longer and spend more money, which is the true impact of tourism,” he said.


A success story

Municipalities throughout the United States are realizing the importance of providing wireless service and are starting to take creative measures to ensure that it is provided to its residents, businesses and visitors.

City officials in Ashland, Ore., developed their own fiber optic network to provide wireless access for the town. Businesses and residents can connect to the city’s network for $28 a month and area nonprofits connect for free. Ashland city officials started exploring the idea of providing wireless access as a way to support the town’s economic growth.

“We wanted to diversify our economy,” said Joe Franell, director of information technology for the city of Ashland and manager of Ashland Fiber Network.

Ten years ago there was no high speed Internet service, he said.

Ashland is a small mountain town of about 10,000 people located in the Cascade Mountain Range in southern Oregon. The town can be compared to the mountain towns in Western North Carolina. Ashland has seen a recent surge of second homebuyers from the San Francisco Bay area and the town also houses a branch of the University of Oregon.

In order to provide a wireless service to its community Ashland city officials decided to get creative and test its workers. With older Internet equipment the city created its own wireless network for under $10,000.

“You don’t have to buy a Lamborgini if you are creative and got people that can build a network anyone can do,” Franell said.

Now more than 30 percent of the city has a wireless connection and the network just continues to grow. Since the city’s started its own network, the town has seen a surge in business licenses, Franell said.

“We have had 571 new business open in the last 10 years. We have people operating international businesses right here in Ashland.”


Geographic challenges

Topography can be one of the biggest challenges for a mountain town’s accessibility to the Internet. As Internet technology continues to grow and becomes more accessible in other parts of North Carolina, that is not the case for the western part of the state.

Western North Carolina’s access to high speed Internet service is much lower than the rest of the state, said Cary Edgar, director of communications at North Carolina’s e-NC authority. The e-NC authority was formed in 2000 by the state’s General Assembly and works to provide Internet access to communities across the state.

In 2006, 85 percent of Haywood county residents have a high-speed connection, while in Macon County only 69 percent have access, Jackson County only 77 percent have access and Swain County 75 percent.

Each year the authority conducts an annual survey of the number of homes that has the ability to connect to high speed Internet. When compared to the state’s access to high speed Internet, which is 83 percent, WNC is lagging behind.

One of the reasons for the lack of Internet connection in WNC can be attributed to Internet providers. Companies like Verizon and Bell South are not regulated to go where businesses are, Edgar explained.

When adding this factor to WNC topography, it is difficult for a mountain community to go wireless, she said.


Security measures

One of the downfalls of using a wireless connection is that a user’s personal information is not secure. Looking at your bank account or credit card information while using a non-secured service is one sure fired way of becoming a victim of identity theft, Franell said.

All customers who use Ashland’s network are operating on a secured site. A customer visiting for a day can have an unlimited amount of access to its network for just $3.95 a day. By paying this fee it ensures that no one is accessing the information on your homepage.

Franell says that it is important that people who use free wireless need to close their network connection when done using the computer.

“By leaving the connection up, it’s an open invitation to get your identity stolen,” he said.

A shopper should not look at their credit card statement in downtown Waynesville because the town’s site is not secured; however, that doesn’t mean you can’t send a picture of your newly adopted dog to your family.

“The more casual and informal uses of a wireless connection is a great amenity to have, but for day-to-day businesses it is not going to work,” Bowen said. “There will always be a need for a secured and manage service.”

Whether a wireless connection is secured or not is a decision that area businesses determine. Wireless users at Soul Infusions Tea House and Bistro in Sylva must obtain a password before accessing the Internet. The restaurant owners had to implement a password protected system to protect their service from being pirated by local residents, said owner Karin Kimenker.

Having area residents or tourists pirating a connection is common for businesses that offer a wireless connection.

Richard Hattler, owner of Four Sisters Farm Coffee Shop in Cashiers had a problem of residents using his connecting during the night.

“We had to turn off our service at night because there would be people parked in our lot,” he said.


Who’s online?

These figures reflect the percentage of homes statewide that have the ability to access a high-speed connection to the Internet:

2002: 75%

2003: 80%

2004: 82%

2005: 82%

2006: 84%

Percentage of homes that have the ability to connect to high speed Internet:

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Haywood 80% 68% 74% 80% 85%

Jackson 44% 78% 74% 77% 77%

Macon 35% 55% 63% 64% 70%

Swain 0% 32% 52% 73% 76%

Data from North Carolina’s e-NC authority

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