Broadband master plan in the works for Haywood

haywoodFinding a solution to the lack of high-speed internet in rural Western North Carolina has been on the minds of economic development officials for some time now.

It’s complicated and has a lot of moving parts, and local governments are limited in what they can do to solve the problem. While governments aren’t allowed to install cable or fiber to offer service that would compete with private providers, they can assist in other ways. 

With a $10,000 grant from the Southwestern Commission, and $10,000 in matching funds from the Haywood Advancement Foundation, the Haywood County Economic Development Council is working toward developing a broadband master plan for the county.  

“The study will provide information to help develop a master plan to assist the underserved and unserved areas of our county in obtaining internet connectivity,” said Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood EDC.

Clasby said the request for proposals for the comprehensive master plan went out last week and proposals from engineering firms are due back to the EDC by July 15. 

“We’ve never done anything like this before so we’re anxious to see what we get back,” he said. 

Increasing broadband connectivity is something the EDC has been working toward for a few years now. Clasby said the EDC board has been meeting with internet providers and various stakeholders since August 2014, trying to bring better service to the citizens of Haywood County.

The EDC also conducted a survey in 2014 of broadband usage and needs in 2015 to share with numerous broadband providers. The survey results provided the EDC with enough information to draw a map showing where broadband was needed to fill in the gaps.  

The survey estimated that 22 percent of respondents had no broadband access and 31 percent said they had only mobile access to broadband. In addition, 97 percent said they would be interested in additional broadband service options and 83 percent said they did not have sufficient speed with their internet service.  Considering the rate of poverty in Haywood County, many of the citizens simply choose not to sign up due to the expense of the service.

The study aims to assess the needs in Haywood, identify broadband options, evaluate the county’s current broadband network capabilities, provide a GIS map analysis and recommend a strategy. The EDC is also asking engineering firms to report on current regulations as they relate to governments providing broadband services. 

Even though local governments aren’t allowed to compete with private enterprise to provide broadband, Clasby said the EDC could go after grant funding to help providers install infrastructure in certain rural areas. For example, Yancey and Mitchell counties were able to get $25 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission for broadband infrastructure.

After talking to cable providers like AT&T and Charter and wireless providers like Skyrunner, Clasby said it’s clear that Haywood County needs some kind of hybrid service to offer better speeds and rural access. 

The limited access to service and broadband availability boils down to two factors –topography and population density. Urban areas like Asheville or Charlotte have the population density providers need to make a return on their infrastructure investment, but places like Haywood and Jackson counties require more miles of cable to be able to reach a limited number of residents. 

“When you don’t have 100 people per square block and there’s no guarantee everyone on the block will sign up for it, it’s kind of a chicken or the egg type problem,” Clasby said. 

And we’re talking big bucks for cable providers. For example, Clasby said it cost about $500,000 for Carolina Mountain Cable on Jonathan Creek Road to provide service for the Brannon Forest development.

“Broadband internet service is a high capital investment for the providers, and being a rural community with our demographics makes it a challenge,” said Clasby. “But we are committed in making our county have high speed access to the internet for our citizens, it’s a must for our future.”

Clasby said having broadband accessibility is important for the future of Haywood County’s economy because future industry will be technology-based. Without that service, Haywood will have a hard time competing for technology-based jobs. It’s no longer a luxury in today’s economy — it’s a necessity.

“Schools will also be going more digital and kids will need broadband service for their homework,” he said. “Then there are people who want to move to Haywood to work and have our quality of life. They want to live in Crabtree or Newfound but they have to have internet access.”

The late Ron DeSimone, former mayor of Maggie Valley, pushed the broadband initiative several years ago while serving on the EDC. He understood the importance of the service to his community and throughout the county and made it one of his top priorities. Though he passed away last summer following a construction accident, the EDC broadband committee has continued the effort. 

Mark Swanger, chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, has been working with the committee since its inception, along with Realtor Jim Blyth — a dear friend to DeSimone.

 “I am grateful for the progress made towards Ron’s vision, and optimistic for greater broadband coverage in the future,” Swanger said. 

Clasby hopes to have a final broadband master plan completed by the end of the year. 

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