One such discussion occurred during a county commissioners work session held Tuesday, Nov. 12, which featured a broadband update from Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price.
The past year has seen some real progress on tackling the problem, across multiple fronts, Price said, though slow or nonexistent internet is still a problem in many areas of the county. According to the report from www.highspeedinternet.com, Sylva’s average internet speed is just 6.5 megabits per second. By contrast, the city ranked as having the fastest internet — Bayside, New York — had an average speed of 100.8 megabits per second. Sylva also ranked the sixth slowest for rural internet, with a rural average speed of 5.4 megabits per second.
The Cullowhee area is now seeing a marked improvement in internet access as the result of an agreement between Morris Broadband and Western Carolina University, reached in August 2018. Under the agreement, Morris is using WCU power poles to provide high-speed internet access to customers currently connected to that power system. The project is about 75 percent complete, said Price, and expected to be done by next summer. So far about 400 addresses have signed up to receive the service, and there is potential to serve as many as 1,500 new customers.
“I know just from talking to people in the community, those who are getting Morris Broadband service all of a sudden started seeing faster and more reliable service,” Price told commissioners.
Internet access is also expanding as the result of a grant that SkyFi, a Sylva-based company that serves rural customers through wireless signal broadcast from towers, landed this year. In 2018, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $10 million to further broadband access statewide, allocated through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology — or GREAT — Program. SkyFi was one of 21 applicants in 19 counties to receive a combined $9.86 million.
According to the grant’s terms, the company has two years to complete the project, which involves construction of three new towers. However, said Price, SkyFi expects to finish next summer, about one year early. So far, the company has built a tower on Buck Knob overlooking the Blanton Branch area and a second one on Wolf Knob, which overlooks Roscoe Lewis Road and East Fork Road. A third tower, to be called Skinner Tower, will overlook the East Laporte and Moody Bridge areas in Tuckasegee. SkyFi currently serves more than 800 customers and will be close to 1,000 once the towers are up, said Price.
However, the GREAT Program is open only to Tier 1 counties, a designation given to North Carolina’s most economically distressed counties. Jackson County was recently re-classified as a Tier 2 county, so it will not be eligible for GREAT funds in the upcoming calendar year. However, said Price, there is language in the appropriations bill that would expand eligibility for GREAT funding to Tier 2 counties as well in 2021.
Commissioner Gayle Woody asked Price about money she’d heard that Frontier Communications had to expand internet access to underserved areas. Price said he’d talked with a Frontier representative in Raleigh about this program, called the Connect America Fund. The funds are restricted for use in underserved areas, and inexplicably Jackson County doesn’t qualify.
“The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) maps with regard to who has service and who doesn’t are wrong,” said Price. “And so what that does is that limits where Frontier can actually make deployment projects.”
The company does not have any plans to make significant investments in Jackson County, said Price.
Chairman Brian McMahan asked what impact the advent of 5G networks might have in this discussion. 5G works so much differently than 4G or 3G, he said, so should the county be planning its infrastructure around that oncoming technology?
“The big question is how long does it take for that to get here in the rural areas,” said Price. “The urban areas, that’s where it’s going to go first, much like high-speed broadband.”
In the meantime, he said, both Cashiers and Sylva are interested in establishing an open wireless network for their downtown areas in an effort to better serve visitors. Cashiers has already achieved that goal, he said, with the nonprofit citizen group Vision Cashiers having recently created a new Wi-Fi district that includes the entire commercial area in Cashiers.
In Sylva, said Town Manager Paige Dowling in response to an email from The Smoky Mountain News, that discussion has been ongoing since 2012 but is still “very preliminary.” It’s unknown as of yet how much it would cost, where the money would come from or if grants are available.
Price said he’s pursuing other avenues as well, currently exploring the possibility of grant funding through Dogwood Health Trust and the Nantahala Health Foundation, which both distribute grants for health-related projects.
“The idea is we’re going to meet with Steve Heatherly (of Harris Regional Hospital) and Casey Cooper from over at the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, along with our public health officials from Swain County and Jackson County, and the conversation is going to center around telehealth and telemedicine and what those facilities are currently doing with telehealth,” said Price. “Could we rationalize creating some kind of an improvement or deployment project relative to broadband to access some of those funds that are out there?”