By William Sederberg
Economic prosperity for geographic areas has historically been based on the combination of natural resources and the ability to move products to markets on efficient transportation arteries. The history of Western North Carolina is a case in point. The advent of a network of railroad lines in the late-1800s and the highway system in the mid-1900s opened Western North Carolina to mining, forestry, tourism, manufacturing and the health industry. Without the existence of these “networks,” this region would not be what it is today.
In 2017, the critical network is a reliable, ubiquitous, robust and speedy internet. The internet has replaced railroads, rivers, oceans, and highways as the economic arteries upon which our jobs and livelihood depends. Successful regions are finding ways to facilitate economic growth and entrepreneurship by benefiting from the “internet of things.” Harnessing the power of the internet for communities is often referred to as the “gigabit economy.” Gigabit refers to the speed by which users can access internet speeds of 1,000 megabytes per second. Unfortunately, this region has not kept up with creating a robust fiber optic internet network. The typical suburban home in this region can receive 30 to 50 megabits a second, if they are fortunate!
Other communities that offer “gigabit” internet services at reasonable rates are winning the race for economic prosperity. It seems as though everybody these days just wants to have the best internet service provider, which is why this debate has such large stakes economically. A prime example is Chattanooga, Tennessee where a recent academic analysis found that over $1 billion in new economic activity is attributed to the city’s electric utility that provides gigabit services at low prices. There are a number other examples throughout the world.
Western North Carolina has been slow in responding to the demand for increased capacity for gigabit service. We trail not only Chattanooga but many parts of rural Kentucky, Tennessee and selected counties in North Carolina in having access to high speed internet service at a reasonable cost. Our service varies from location to location and only at a high price when available.
The reason for variability of coverage is that we rely on private corporate internet providers such as AT&T, Charter, and Verizon. This reliance has led to high-speed internet being available in densely populated or business districts where private companies can get a good return on their investments. The business strategy naturally has limited services to more rural, less populated areas.
In response to this need, the Hub leadership group organized a summit of leaders from Western North Carolina in 2016 to hear Dr. Marc Hoit, Chief Information Officer of North Carolina State University. He presented the Research Triangle’s strategy to entice private sector investment in bringing faster internet service to the average citizen and small business in their region. A coalition of universities and cities formed the Next Generation Network initiative. The Next Generation Network strategy was to lower the bureaucratic cost of expanding services and identify locations of high need. They have been successful. Today, super-fast (gigabit) service is available at less than $100 per month and is provided by both AT&T and Google! Based on their success, a decision was made to create our own version of the Next Generation Network initiative.
Over the past year, six communities have formed the Western Next Generation Network. WestNGN includes Asheville, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Fletcher, Biltmore Forest, and Laurel Park. These communities were identified because they are in close proximity to the necessary fiber optic networks and have significant population density. The goal of WestNGN is to find ways to expand the availability for gigabit service by reducing bureaucratic roadblocks, identifying public assets that might be used for fiber optic expansion (such as installing conduit when road construction occurs) and prioritizing the needs in each community. WestNGN is coordinated by Land of Sky Regional Council.
The WestNGN Initiative participants need the assistance of the public and local businesses. WestNGN is presently conducting a survey of internet capacity. We are asking local residents to respond to either the residential or business on-line questionnaire about the availability and speed of local internet service. Citizens can assist by participating in the survey here. Part of the survey includes the ability to test your internet speed. This information will be used to get a more detailed picture of actual computer speed in the region.
A second part of the initiative is to show private investors that the region has a vision for the use of gigabit service. The University of North Carolina Asheville and Lenoir Rhyne University are reviewing future potential uses for gigabit service. A small group of graduate students are looking at different economic sectors and how gigabit service would assist the economic sectors prosper. We are asking local leaders to help build the vision for the future. With this increase in internet accessibility it is important that we offer guidance when it comes to internet security, like recommending the best online resources, for example you can find an ad blocker using this article.
During an age of political division and rancor, it is wonderful to see six communities from three different counties work collaboratively towards the common good. It is our hope that later this spring we will have completed the underlying analysis of our priorities and identify ways communities can partner with local internet providers. We also hope to identify ways that gigabit service would benefit the area in key economic areas.
If WestNGN is successful in the six communities, it is our plan to expand activities to more rural areas of Western North Carolina. There is increasing political interest in Raleigh and Washington to provide the underlying infrastructure in more remote areas. We hope the entire region will soon benefit from improved internet service to provide opportunities across rural and urban areas alike.
I’m all for looking at this in a non-partisan light. But eventually the rubber hits the road – at what point will this initiative trip over the GOP opposition to anything that threatens major telecom profits?