Improving internet access in Haywood County is expensive.
Studies conducted over the years estimate it would cost close to $100 million to run fiber-optic internet cables to communities across the mountainous terrain of Haywood County, said Joey Webb, member of the Haywood County Broadband Committee, which provided an annual report to the county commissioners Aug. 3.
The cost to run a single mile of internet cable varies, depending on a variety of factors, Webb said. In previous years, running a mile of internet along already-existing utility poles could cost around $17,000, whereas burying the cables underground would be up to three times more expensive.
Private internet service providers do not generally see enough profit to justify expanding their service areas, and grant funding has proven elusive, partially because Haywood is classified as one of the state’s 20 least economically distressed counties.
In a 2020 survey conducted by Haywood County Schools, 37 percent of more than 4,600 families responding did not have reliable internet connectivity at their homes.
For more rural areas like at Riverbend Elementary in Crabtree, up to 60 percent of students do not have reliable internet access, said Deborah Porto, broadband committee chairwoman.
As students prepare to continue their education with socially distanced remote learning, hotspots are being installed at community centers, churches and businesses countywide, Webb said.
“The one thing we’ve understood as a broadband committee is we have not been able to get broadband into individual houses,” Webb said.
More than 100 such locations have been identified for hotspot installation so far, Webb said.
Local libraries are purchasing hotspots to loan out like books, and the school system is also acquiring hotspots for students.
Despite the county’s economic distress tier designation, the grants that are available are being applied for, Porto said.
“I don’t know who in the world decided to line us up in these tiers,” said Commissioner Tommy Long.
A $100,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission was applied for last week, which could include a match of up to $100,000 from an internet service provider to expand broadband internet access in underserved areas like Crabtree and Fines Creek, Porto said.
Porto said she expects to hear back about that grant in the fall, and the project would be a years-long process.
“Short of changing the tier status, we’re probably not going to end up getting any help,” said Commissioner Mark Pless, suggesting the county look at one mile at a time, picking an area that needs internet and working in that direction.
Otherwise, funding seems to be the biggest barrier to internet access for rural areas of Haywood County.
“It looks like to me that you’ve been thinking outside the box to provide the service one way or the other, because it’s not something financially that we can provide,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.
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