Speak up if you want high-speed internet in Jackson

Jackson County wants to bring high-speed Internet service to a greater number of residents, but doing so means convincing an Internet service provider there’s enough potential customers to make it worth their while.

Still can’t hear you … No easy fix for connectivity in Nantahala Gorge

Organizers of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championship in 2013 have a short-term fix for getting telecommunication capabilities into the Nantahala Gorge, but have yet to find a long-term solution for business owners and residents there.

BalsamWest FiberNet, a company jointly owned by Macon County businessman Phil Drake and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has already dug in fiber along the railroad tracks traversing the steep-walled gorge. It is part of the 225 miles of fiber built and owned by BalasmWest in this section of Western North Carolina. BalsamWest currently provides the Nantahala Outdoor Center, located along the railroad tracks, with high-speed connectivity to the outside world. The service isn’t inexpensive and other businesses in that remote area west of Bryson City haven’t been as lucky.

BalsamWest CEO Cecil Groves said that the fiber company could, however, provide 21st-century internet for everyone’s use during the games. This service will be available only on a temporary basis, he said last week.

“We can’t do it permanently, but we can for that short amount of time,” Groves said. “Once this is over, there’s not enough demand for us, or probably another carrier, to bring (the technology) fulltime. But for the event, we can help.”

BalsamWest’s willingness to hookup the Gorge might literally be saving the event for organizers of the kayaking freestyle world championship.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected.

Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

During the search for serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, when dozens of news organizations from across the nation and beyond swooped into the region to cover the manhunt, only one news organization had the technology to communicate from the Gorge area. There was suspicion then that Rudolph, who was later captured in Murphy while pilfering a grocery store Dumpster for leftovers, was holed up in one of the caves dotting the landscape of the Gorge.

CNN reporters had a van equipped with a satellite phone, allowing them to keep viewers somewhat abreast of events that didn’t develop as the manhunt dragged on (for a long five years or so during the late 1990s). They’d occasionally loan the phone out to desperate colleagues affiliated with other news organizations, who needed to alert their editors of Rudolph’s non-capture, too.

The situation hasn’t advanced much in the intervening decade for business owners and members of the Nantahala community such as Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company. Kastorff is helping to organize the world championship. She said that one of the commitments made by the organizing committee was to develop a long-term economic incentive for helping to host the championships — broadband capability was chosen.

“It is disappointing,” Kastorff said. “When the event is over, there will still be nothing there for the community — we are the last mile, literally and figuratively, for North Carolina.”

There’s not likely to be an easy answer anytime soon for the seven or so miles of dead zone. Enter the Nantahala Gorge, and cell phones and internet connections stop, the result of the steep, rocky walled gorge-area blocking modern communication abilities.

Can you hear me now? Broadband “critical” for Nantahala Gorge before kayaking championships

Organizers said this week that getting the Nantahala Gorge into this century when it comes to telecommunication capabilities is absolutely critical to successfully hosting the kayaking world championship in 2013.

The problem? There’s seems no easy answer to what’s for computer users a Bermuda Triangle of silence: seven or so miles of no broadband capability. Cell phones are equally useless in the steep-walled gorge where reception is unavailable.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge from Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected. Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

“We’re waiting on a miracle,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in the Nantahala Gorge, of the possibilities of broadband capabilities throughout the area.

Short of that miracle, there also have been discussions with U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to see if he can help apply, well, pressure on the powers-that-be to bring in broadband.

“Getting broadband access throughout the gorge is a huge priority,” said Sutton Bacon president and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the region’s largest whitewater and outdoor outfitter.

Another priority is work on a water feature in the Nantahala. These championships are freestyle, which Bacon explained is similar to kayakers doing tricks and stunts akin to a snowboarders’ showoff on a halfpipe. There is a play feature currently on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that is situated near NOC. That has been simply the work of river guides and others hand-stacking rocks, which tend to be washed out in storms, Bacon said.

Firms have been hired to stabilize “The Wave” and “make it a world-championship feature,” he said, adding that the new trick area would not look much different from what’s available now, and would continue to be at the level of “Nantahala-style paddlers.”

McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group of Denver, with the help of local company Heron Associates, will develop the river feature. McLaughlin re-engineered the Ocoee River for the 1996 Olympics, and has extensive experience working with the U.S. Forest Service, Bacon said.

The committee overseeing the world championships has submitted a $200,000 request to Golden Leaf Foundation for money; Nantahala Outdoor Center has contributed $100,000; the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has chipped in $25,000; the Swain County Tourism Development Authority $70,000; and Duke Energy, $5,000. Smoky Mountain Host will contribute cash, plus in-kind work, according to organizers.

Business, tourism and economic development leaders hoping to capitalize on these events met Thursday (March 24) in Stecoah to continue planning for them and to discuss marketing plans.

High-speed broadband continues march across the mountains

Work to bring broadband to all of North Carolina — including adding missing sections of fiber in the mountains — is well under way, leaders with a state nonprofit group said.

Construction on an important link from Enka to Sylva that will run through Haywood County is targeted for completion by early May, Tommy Jacobson, vice president of MCMN’s network infrastructure initiatives, told about 50 regional business and political leaders during a conference held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.  

North Carolina has received $255 million in federal recovery grants to extend broadband in the state, via MCMN (Making Connections in North Carolina).

The new fiber will help groups such as BalsamWest FiberNET in Sylva and other telecoms by providing them with additional capacity and making them more efficient. BalsamWest is a private entity that is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises. It worked independently to build a broadband infrastructure to serve Western North Carolina, putting in 300 miles of fiberoptic cable.

“Bandwidth demand will never go down,” Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises said of BalsamWest’s ability to use extra broadband capacity.

The missing piece now being laid in Haywood County has been described as critical to that county’s economic wellbeing by elected and business leaders: MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, has estimated such a connection would save MedWest alone at least half a million dollars.

Additionally, construction on an 18-mile stretch of fiber cable in Graham County, which will tie back into BalsamWest, is slated to start this summer. Jacobson said his group is working to get clearance to build through the Nantahala National Forest.

He dubbed the process “challenging,” dryly describing the U.S. Forest Service “as an interesting agency to work with.”

“Little can be done out here without public-private partnerships,” said Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest and the former president of Southwestern Community College.

Joe Freddoso, president and CEO of MCMN, agreed. He said the group used BalsamWest and Blue Ridge EMC (serving the state’s westernmost counties and north Georgia) as a model for expanding service to rural areas across North Carolina.

“That model was crafted here,” Freddoso said, “by a region that met its own need.

An uphill battle: Western North Carolina struggles to overcome digital divide

A few years ago, Michael Wade was ready to hang up tin cans and have tenants at his Rabbit Ridge Apartments in Cullowhee yell messages at each other — all to avoid the daily aggravation caused by two telecom corporations.

The 170 students who lived at Rabbit Ridge also lived on the Internet, and poor service forced Wade to reset modems at least three or four times a day. No matter how often Wade called each company’s customer service line, there was no end in sight to the infuriating Internet outages.

“They simply did not have the amount of bandwidth needed in the area,” said Wade. “It was a nightmare. Both companies were just a nightmare to work with.”

Then in November 2008, Wade decided to splurge. It cost him $25,000 to buy a high-speed connection to BalsamWest FiberNET, a Sylva-based telecommunications carrier.

Wade footed the entire construction bill for physically hooking up to BalsamWest’s 300-mile fiberoptic network.

“It was the best 25 grand I’ve ever spent,” said Wade, adding that now, there are no more outages at Rabbit Ridge.

But not everyone in Western North Carolina is lucky enough to be within spitting distance from BalsamWest’s fiber network — or rich enough to afford the thousands it would usually take to connect initially.

“If I was just a homeowner, it wouldn’t make sense,” said Wade. “But because I was a business and I had 170 kids, it made total sense.”


See also: Internet could be key to economic development in WNC 


Over in the Nantahala Gorge, Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, is still struggling with her own Internet woes. The outfitter is still using a snail-paced service via satellite. It’s the company’s one and only option.

“It’s so unreliable and so slow,” said Kastorff. “Considering three years ago, there wasn’t even cell phone reception in the gorge, I’m not entirely surprised.”

Kastorff said she’s encountered high-speed wireless in some of the world’s remote places.

“In South America, wireless and cell phone service is easily 100 percent better,” Kastorff said. “So we’re talking about developing countries that have more progressive infrastructure than we have in WNC.”

In a rural and mountainous area like Western North Carolina, telecommunications service is bound to be a challenge. But solutions, like BalsamWest, are slowly creeping up.

Million-dollar federal grants and millions more matching funds from nonprofits like the Golden LEAF Foundation will slowly bring high-speed Internet to rural counties like Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain in the next three years.

WNC can be said to fall into the middle-mile phase on the path to quick and reliable Internet. Most people talk about middle-mile to last-mile connectivity by using road analogies.

“Middle-mile is more like the highway instead of the off-ramp that goes to your home,” said Hunter Goosmann, general manager of the nonprofit ERC Broadband. “The off-ramp is the last mile.”

“You can’t go down the dirt road until you get off the paved road,” said John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville. “And right now, the paved road is being built.”

 

The high cost of last-mile

Middle-mile solutions, like BalsamWest, usually target anchor institutions in a community, like schools, hospitals, libraries, government offices and only major companies. BalsamWest, which is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises, focuses on providing Internet service to businesses found within its fiber footprint in the six counties west of the Balsam Mountains (Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties).

“We’re not in the business of building out to everybody’s homes,” said BalsamWest CEO David Hubbs.

The reasons that BalsamWest and other telecoms have not tackled the last-mile part are primarily financial. Most companies would have to put up millions of dollars to build infrastructure, only to have a relatively sparse number of customers.

Government help is on the way, however.

Soon, nonprofit MCNC will begin work on a $111 million broadband fiber project that will install 1,448 miles of new fiber through 69 of the most rural counties in North Carolina. BalsamWest and ERC are both major partners in the initiative. Particularly important to WNC will be the fiber link constructed in Haywood County.

Mark Clasby, economic development director for Haywood, said it’s been his priority to get Haywood connected to the fiber networks found east in Asheville and west of the Balsams.

“It’s essential we get this done,” said Clasby. “We’re kind of like the hole in the donut. It’s critical for our future that we have some type of system.”

Gene Winters, CFO of MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, said the connection would save his company at least half a million dollars.

Presently, MedWest is forced to use multiple telecom companies since there is no fiber running from Haywood County to west of the Balsams. If such a connection existed, MedWest would not have to duplicate services.

Winters said MedWest, too, has spent thousands on Internet infrastructure. Recently, the hospital group dropped $18,000 on bringing Internet service from one building to another just 75 yards away.

“You got to look at it as a four- to five-year investment to recoup your cost,” said Winters. “Most small companies don’t have a longer view, and they can’t because cash is tight.”

 

Gaining momentum

All eyes in the telecommunications community are on the MCNC project, which will expand broadband capability exponentially on the middle-mile scale.

“I think the future is being written right now,” said Howell. “We should see deeper penetration of broadband into at least the business community and anchor institutions.”

“This is truly a game changer,” said Goosmann, whose company is tackling fiber in Buncombe, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Avery counties.

Meanwhile, BalsamWest will bring middle-mile broadband to 480 miles in 37 counties. It is also working on a major project connecting its fiber network west to Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The link will bring instant access to universities, and scientific and high-tech industries.

In addition, Frontier Communications Company has taken over Verizon’s landline footprint in North Carolina. Unlike Verizon, Frontier markets itself as a telecom company for rural areas of the country. The company promises to bring high-speed Internet to 85 percent of all areas they serve in the next three years.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said Brigid Smith, assistant vice president of corporate communications at Frontier. Smith says that her company has brought broadband to the mountains of Moab, Utah, the deserts of Arizona and isolated areas of the Midwest where it takes six hours to reach the next house on the road.

“Terrain issues are not new to us,” said Smith, adding that Frontier is also “very financially healthy.”

Smaller telecom companies like Sylva-based Metrostat Communications are also devoted to bringing Internet to the most unlikely places. The company says its goal is to bring Internet service to everybody, not just the big companies.

“My goal is to serve Annie’s Bakery and all the little guys on Back Street … I’ll use any means I can to do it,” said co-owner John Kevlin. “Sometimes we use radios, sometimes a fiber network. It depends on what’s cheapest and easiest.”

The company receives calls daily from bewildered new residents of WNC who expected Internet service to be just a phone call away.

“They are not understanding that not every place in the world has broadband Internet,” said Metrostat co-owner Robin Kevlin.

“I know people who can’t even get telephone access, and this is 2010,” said John Kevlin.

At times, Metrostat has to use admittedly quirky methods that aren’t always available to bigger corporations. For example, the company will ask someone if it’s OK to install a radio in their house to help a neighbor down the street.

“We have to look for creative ways to spend a smaller amount of money to get to the most people,” said Kevlin.

Hubbs says that extraordinary progress has undoubtedly been made in WNC in the last decade.

“You can get the same kind of connectivity in Franklin, N.C., that you can get in Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.,” said Hubbs. “In economic development terms, that is part of the most critical infrastructure that large 21st century knowledge-based companies have to have.”

Clasby calls the quest for reliable Internet complicated but also one of the most exciting issues he is working on.

“I see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clasby. “It’s still probably two, three years away, but we’re getting there inch by inch.”

According to Goosmann, it will take time for the average citizen to benefit from the progress being made. But that progress is coming.

“It’s going to be years before we really see the full scope of what this is going to do for the mountains,” Goosmann said. “But the ball is starting to roll downhill, and it’s going to gain momentum.

Verizon expands DSL service in rural areas

High-speed Internet access has been expanded into several rural areas in the region thanks to a technology investment by Verizon landline company.

MAIN seeks support for wireless network in downtown Waynesville

An effort to install wireless Internet service throughout Downtown Waynesville is making a year-end push for donations.

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