It’s no secret that access to internet in western North Carolina is a big problem. A recent study found that 73% of people in the area find that their internet access or speed does not meet their needs.
IT Director of Highlands Matt Schuler has been working to help bring internet to the town for over 10 years. It’s been a challenge from all angles: legal, technological and literal – since Highlands sits on a plateau at 4118 feet at the top of Cullasaja Gorge.
“Highlands is difficult to get to – every road here is curvy as it can be,” says Schuler. “Nobody really wanted to come in the 1900s to build electricity in our town because it was kind of a rough route.”
Schuler compares internet to electricity because the town of Highlands sees internet access as a utility that they should be able to provide to their citizens. He also says they can use the broadband to enhance the town’s utilities into a “smart grid.”
However a 2011 law upheld by NC appeals courts in 2016 blocks towns and municipalities in North Carolina from any involvement in internet services that directly competes with private companies.
In 2014, the law was struck down by the FCC as part of a complaint made by Highlands, Wilson NC and others explains Mayor Patrick Taylor.
“We waited for several months to create our little department to see if there would be a courts challenge. We created it and low and behold in about a month there was a challenge,” says Taylor.
It was during this period in 2015 that Highlands created Altitude Community Broadband by installing 10 miles of fiber optic cables through the town center to provide speeds up to 50mbps for their citizens and business owners.
This sort of capital investment is possible in Highlands because of their tax base. The town of almost 1000 has an median home value of $595,000 dollars according to Realtor.com. If you compare that value to the Macon County seat, Franklin, located just down the mountain you can see that many of their citizens are in a different tax bracket. Franklin’s median home value is just $197,000 dollars.
Altitude’s network is still active in order to keep access for its over 300 customers while looking for another internet provider. Right now, contract negotiations and plans are being finalized with service operator and provider Wide Open Networks.
Taylor says the contract should be signed in October. He says it includes a plan for an investment of about $3 million dollars from the town and the same from Wide Open Networks to build the broadband infrastructure. After service starts, Wide Open will then pay the town a monthly percentage of their profits in order to repay Highland’s investment. All of the staff and equipment from Altitude will become a part of Wide Open as a part of the deal. Taylor says he hopes the project will be completed in the next 18 months.
As Wide Open’s name suggests the company acts as an internet provider while also allowing other companies to pay to use open fiber in the network.
“That’s what sold it for the town because we don’t want to shut anyone out. We want as much competition as we can have,” says Shuler, who has been the director of IT since 2004.
In many areas of Western North Carolina, there is only one internet provider and without competition many people complain that the companies have little reason to keep their services fast and reliable.
Local nonprofits and organizations are all working on different fronts to bring more internet access to Western North Carolina. Western Carolina University announced today that it is joining the ranks of service providers as part of partnership with Morris Broadband.
Morris Broadband will install broadband distribution lines and equipment on Western Carolina’s electric poles to faciliate internet access by early 2020 to more than 3,350 people.
The company hopes to invest $1.5 million dollars in the project and make speeds up to 500mbps available.
“We hope the public-private sector cooperation implicit in this deal can be a springboard for similar projects throughout Western North Carolina,” says Tony Carter, Morris Broadband general manager, in a press release.
While these solutions bring internet access to Highlands and Cullowhee, the fight is far from over between broadband companies and local governments.
Just before the end of the 2018 short session, Rep. Kevin Corbin (R) of District 120 along with other legislators introduced two bills to the House which would allow towns and municipalities to help facilitate the infrastructure needed to bring internet access to homes in Western North Carolina. Each community needs to find the best solution for them, says Corbin, but these laws would allow local governments more freedom to get involved.
“It’s just the issue of getting it up to all of these creeks and hollers. It’s a heavy lift. It’s a big job,” says Corbin. “ I don’t think there is a single answer. I think there are many answers.”