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Waynesville enters agreement to expand broadband

haywoodThe lack of high-speed internet in Western North Carolina has been more than just an annoyance to Netflix binge-watchers — it’s also seen as one of the region’s largest economic development challenges.

On June 28, however, the Waynesville Town Board took a step that may put the town on the fast track to gigabit broadband service.

The Land of Sky Regional Council is an Asheville-based multi-jurisdictional development organization that provides local governments with administration of and technical assistance for programs supporting public transportation, encouraging volunteerism, aiding the aged and stimulating economic and workforce development.

The town and LOS entered into an agreement with the goal of expanding the West — Next Generation Network, also known as WestNGN, to about 125,000 customers south and west of Asheville. 

Waynesville’s share of the $35,000 project cost is $4,877, which includes a flat fee of $4,000 and a per-population fee of $877. 

The brunt of the tab will be paid by Asheville at $11,893, and four other entities — Hendersonville, Fletcher, Biltmore Forest and Laurel Park — will make up the rest, paying from $4,205 to $5,226.  

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That fee pays for a year’s worth of project management by the council, including convening a steering committee, compiling and analyzing regional data, and drafting a Request for Proposals designed to entice vendors to deliver high-speed gigabit internet service to the area. 

Waynesville’s representative on the steering committee is Alderman Jon Feichter, who also owns a tech-based business downtown. 

Referring to the benefits of high-speed internet, Feichter said that it would “help level the economic playing field” and open up telecommuting opportunities.

“Right now, consumers and businesses in western N.C. pay more for broadband and get inferior service as compared to our counterparts in other parts of the state,” he said.

Gigabit broadband internet of the type proposed in the agreement delivers data at incredible speeds — allowing film buffs to download a two-hour HD movie in 25 seconds. With the 10 megabits per second average speed of most Americans, that same download would take more than 70 minutes. A gigabit is equal to 1000 megabits. 

Speeds of this magnitude are for more than just entertainment. With gigabit service, large files now common to many industries — like X-rays, audio/video tracks and document collections — can be exchanged in real time, allowing local medical practitioners, creatives and researchers to compete in those industries on a global scale. Distance education is also expected to benefit dramatically as speeds increase. 

According to Broadband Now, a “Fiber In The Home” advocacy group, as of June 22 only 22 percent of North Carolinians had access to 100-megabit internet. The fastest speed available in the Waynesville area is 100 megabits per second, but around 13 percent of Haywood County doesn’t have access to wired broadband speeds even as high as 25 megabits per second, and 1 percent doesn’t have access to wired internet at all. 

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood Economic Development Council, disputes those figures. 

“I would say those numbers are low,” he said. “I think it’s much higher. If you take a census block and there’s one house in there [connected], they’re saying there’s connectivity. But there may not be. The average person thinks, ‘Well, if I can get electricity, I can get internet,’ and that’s simply not true.”

Clasby, who’s been working on the connectivity problem since commissioning a study in late 2014 that outlines Haywood County’s haves and have-nots, also acknowledges the challenges facing broadband providers.

“Being a rural county, you just don’t have the mass or the density like you do in Asheville or Savannah, let alone Chicago. There’s kind of a lack of competition, and the capital cost is enormous,” said Clasby.

Still, Clasby’s insistent that internet access — gigabit or not — is crucial for the region’s economic expansion. 

“If you’re in what I call the ‘corridor’ [central Haywood County from Canton to Maggie Valley] it’s OK, but if you’re out in the north end of the county, or the southern end, it’s a challenge. We understand that having internet is like having electricity back in the 1930s — for the future, you’ve got to have it, and DSL isn’t going to do it.”

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