To that end, the county is partnering with the N.C. Commerce Department to conduct a survey that will gauge demand.
“We want to better assess the demand for internet services across Jackson County — folks that are served, that are not served and are underserved,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
Thousands of people in Jackson County don’t have high-speed internet. Jackson’s population is spread out. The cost of bringing high-speed internet to rural areas, especially mountainous ones, can be prohibitive, especially if the market outlook is unknown.
The survey hopes to solve that by showing internet service providers that there is in fact a large untapped demand.
“It has proven beneficial to get demand numbers so we can tell providers what’s out there,” Wooten said.
The county will be working with the assistance of the N.C. BroadBand, a division of the Department of Commerce. One goal is simply to figure out what type of Internet service is out there — fast, slow or nonexistent — and if people actually be willing to pay for additional services, said Keith Conover, the agency’s technical assistance director for the western region.
The surveys will be available online in coming weeks. Realizing the flaw in conducting a survey to gauge lack of Internet service in an online format, Conover said there will most likely be other outlets for participating, such as hard-copy surveys at local libraries or gas stations. The results, Conover said, will dictate what size and type of companies will show interest in expanding its reaches in Jackson County — from AT&T on down.
“If we get quite a few people with a lack of service reporting — then we might get a big provider moving into area,” Conover said. “If the need isn’t so large then maybe a smaller provider could move in.”
Once the survey results are in, another way to attract a company will be for the county to offer incentives, such use of its existing infrastructure, like towers to place high-speed wireless antennae’s on at a reduced rate, or lowered fees. Conover will work as a liaison between the providers and the county during that process. He said if Internet is thought of as a public service, like education, it makes sense to work alongside private businesses that provide it.
“The whole idea for me is to lower the barriers for market entry,” Conover said “It’s kind of like a private-public partnership.”
Although the region, including Jackson County, is served by main track of high speed Internet fibers called the middle mile, what most residents lack is a way to tap into the superhighway. High-speed DSL or cable are only available in the county’s more densely populated areas.
One promising option would be high-speed wireless. Towers can beam high-speed internet using wireless signals through the air, reaching potential customers more cheaply than the incremental build-out of land-based infrastructure.
“Quite frankly the mountains are the biggest asset and liability,” Conover said.
As it stands, the Internet service landscape in Jackson County is a hodge-podge at best, with six providers offering Internet in various forms and a few more eyeing forays into the county.
One company contemplating a high-speed wireless investment into the county has attempted to gauge demand itself. Vistanet put out a call through local newspapers asking residents interested in Internet service to let them know. The company’s plan was to build where the need was greatest. The response was supposedly good.
Stay tuned for the web link where the survey will be posted.