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A pending sale of 19 miles of fiber lines capable of delivering high-speed internet in the greater Sylva area could once again give internet customers there a third option.

If the sale goes through, Jackson County and the town of Sylva could recoup a portion — although not all — of an economic development loan extended to the company that built and operated the lines before it went out of business.

By the end of this year, nearly every student in the six westernmost counties will have unprecedented access to technology in the classroom.

Thanks to a collaborative project called WNC EdNet, high-speed Internet will become a reality for all public and charter school classrooms in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, along with the Qualla Boundary.

WNC EdNet recently got the go-ahead to connect The Highlands School — the last remaining school to join the regional network.

As late as 2000, schools in Western North Carolina could only transmit 1.5 megabyte per second. Now, schools with fiber can enjoy 100 megabyte per second connections.

Once these high-speed connections are in place, star pupils from far-flung schools can join together in a virtual classroom to take advanced courses that aren’t normally offered at their own schools. Live video will allow for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

“It’s not like an online class,” said David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, which implemented the WNC EdNet project. “You’re speaking to or interacting with a teacher in real time.”

Linking up to the state network creates access to The North Carolina Virtual Public High School, which already offers 72 courses including Advanced Placement and world language classes.

The widespread reach of fiber across North Carolina to even the most rural schools holds the promise of creating a level playing field for students, according to Bob Byrd WNC EdNet project manager.

“That’s our big push now, to narrow that digital divide,” said Byrd.

Moreover, fiberoptic technology makes professional training more readily available for teachers. Once colleges are hooked up to the statewide K-12 network, student-teachers at Western Carolina University or other colleges may observe teachers in actual classrooms without interrupting lessons.

Being on the same fiber network also decreases overhead for school systems, which only have to pay one Internet bill for all their schools, Hubbs said.

 

Jumping hurdles

 

The WNC EdNet project has traveled down a long road to get to where it is now.

Nearly 60 schools have been hooked up to their central office in the county via a fiberoptic line, which makes broadband Internet possible and also provides an important backbone for communication between the school district office and individual schools.

A separate project by a nonprofit called MCNC is in turn connecting these school district offices to a statewide fiber network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Now, MCNC is also working on linking colleges up to the state network.

WNCEdNet piggybacked onto the larger BalsamWest project, which has installed hundreds of miles of fiber underground to promote economic development in the Western North Carolina.

The mountainous terrain was a major obstacle BalsamWest had to overcome while installing equipment underground.

“The very things that we love about our rural area create challenges for technology,” said Hubbs.

Constructing in the remote area between Cashiers and Highlands was another challenge. BalsamWest had to speak individually to every property owner to get permission to build.

“We had more private easements between Cashiers and Highlands than we did everything else put together, over 300 miles,” said Hubbs. About 15 grant applications had to be submitted to lock down funding for the $6.1 million WNC EdNet project. The project was partly funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, which chipped in $2.2 million, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which contributed $1.7 million.

Even with 12 different partners — including Southwestern NC Planning & Economic Development Commission, the Western Region Education Service Alliance, seven school districts and three colleges — WNC EdNet was smoothly coordinated.

A similar project in eastern North Carolina had failed due to infighting, according to Leonard Winchester, chairman of the WNC EdNet technology committee.

WNC EdNet coordinators were asked to come to Raleigh and explain how their particular project ended in success. Winchester said cooperation was key.

“We had a group of people that trusted each other,” said Winchester. “That trust, you can’t give to somebody else.”

Haywood County recently dropped a lawsuit against Wynncom, after the telecommunications company agreed to hand over its fiberoptic network to the county for $6,500.

Wynncom, based in Lexington, N.C., was hired to build a fiberoptic line for Haywood and be the county’s telecommunications service provider, but the county grew dissatisfied with the company after problems arose with the telephone system it provided.

“They never did perform up to what was expected,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

The fiberoptic line is an important backbone for communications across county offices, as well as Town of Waynesville buildings. Wynncom was supposed to deliver a phone system with extras like 4-digit extension dialing and voiceover Internet protocol. The county had to go with another telecommunications company to receive those services.

Kristy Wood, director of information technology for Haywood, described fiber as a pipe that high-speed Internet goes through. It allows the county to share data across departments, connect with state and national databases and reduce phone and Internet expenses.

As it stands, the fiberoptic network runs from the regional High Tech Center at Haywood Community College through Waynesville to West Waynesville. The county hopes to someday link up with nearby lines, ending the “doughnut hole” in fiber that’s developed in the county.

“We have fiber all around us,” said Wood. “We just need to be sort of the net in the middle that connects us all together.”

Mark Clasby, director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, supports extending the fiber line to connect with two nearby networks: one that runs west and goes down to Atlanta, and another in Asheville that connects to Atlanta, Greenville, S.C. and Washington, D.C.

Having both options would be useful. If there’s a break in one line, Haywood could easily utilize the other.

Clasby said it would be especially beneficial for hospitals and school systems to connect to a long-distance fiber network.

For example, a doctor at a hospital in Haywood County could instantly receive large files chock full of vital medical information and give a well-informed opinion much more quickly to an ailing patient.

In the next few years, school systems here will see the benefit of a $28.2 million federal stimulus grant recently awarded to expand broadband to schools in underserved areas, including 37 counties in Southeastern and Western North Carolina.

For now, the county is close to realizing the potential for video conferences between various departments and even video arraignments before a judge so prisoners do not have to be transported to the courthouse.

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