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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 13:40

Still can’t hear you … No easy fix for connectivity in Nantahala Gorge

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Organizers of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championship in 2013 have a short-term fix for getting telecommunication capabilities into the Nantahala Gorge, but have yet to find a long-term solution for business owners and residents there.

BalsamWest FiberNet, a company jointly owned by Macon County businessman Phil Drake and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has already dug in fiber along the railroad tracks traversing the steep-walled gorge. It is part of the 225 miles of fiber built and owned by BalasmWest in this section of Western North Carolina. BalsamWest currently provides the Nantahala Outdoor Center, located along the railroad tracks, with high-speed connectivity to the outside world. The service isn’t inexpensive and other businesses in that remote area west of Bryson City haven’t been as lucky.

BalsamWest CEO Cecil Groves said that the fiber company could, however, provide 21st-century internet for everyone’s use during the games. This service will be available only on a temporary basis, he said last week.

“We can’t do it permanently, but we can for that short amount of time,” Groves said. “Once this is over, there’s not enough demand for us, or probably another carrier, to bring (the technology) fulltime. But for the event, we can help.”

BalsamWest’s willingness to hookup the Gorge might literally be saving the event for organizers of the kayaking freestyle world championship.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected.

Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

During the search for serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, when dozens of news organizations from across the nation and beyond swooped into the region to cover the manhunt, only one news organization had the technology to communicate from the Gorge area. There was suspicion then that Rudolph, who was later captured in Murphy while pilfering a grocery store Dumpster for leftovers, was holed up in one of the caves dotting the landscape of the Gorge.

CNN reporters had a van equipped with a satellite phone, allowing them to keep viewers somewhat abreast of events that didn’t develop as the manhunt dragged on (for a long five years or so during the late 1990s). They’d occasionally loan the phone out to desperate colleagues affiliated with other news organizations, who needed to alert their editors of Rudolph’s non-capture, too.

The situation hasn’t advanced much in the intervening decade for business owners and members of the Nantahala community such as Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company. Kastorff is helping to organize the world championship. She said that one of the commitments made by the organizing committee was to develop a long-term economic incentive for helping to host the championships — broadband capability was chosen.

“It is disappointing,” Kastorff said. “When the event is over, there will still be nothing there for the community — we are the last mile, literally and figuratively, for North Carolina.”

There’s not likely to be an easy answer anytime soon for the seven or so miles of dead zone. Enter the Nantahala Gorge, and cell phones and internet connections stop, the result of the steep, rocky walled gorge-area blocking modern communication abilities.

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