A collaborative effort that’s brought together Western North Carolina elected officials, as well as leaders in higher education and business, got a Monday morning update on a push to bring gigabit internet service to the region.
The gist of the update was relatively dry: a consultant has been hired (Magellan Advisors) and a request for a proposal from potential providers will likely go out next spring. But interest in the effort was high, and a UNC Asheville conference room was filled with about 100 leaders of public schools, universities and businesses, as well as local elected officials from the mountains.
Collectively, the group sees gigabit internet service delivered over fiber optic lines as a critical infrastructure need and, at least for now, it appears united in its desire to work for it.
The “infrastructure of the future” is a topic of real interest in the community, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman told the group. Officials in the business, health and education communities particularly see it as crucial for the region’s economic development, he said.
The effort is known as the West Next Generation Network. It came together after developer Jack Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms, noticed the work of North Carolina Next Generation Network to bring the next generation of broadband to the state. Cecil brought the idea to a local economic development group known as The HUB, or the HUB Community Economic Development Alliance.
That led to six municipalities banding together to see if they could attract a broadband provider to serve Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Waynesville, Fletcher, Hendersonville and Laurel Park. Those cities and towns lie along an existing fiber optic pipeline, explained unofficial coordinator Bill Sederburg, who led the meeting. Sederburg has worked as a university president for several institutions, including interim chancellor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He’s also a former Michigan state senator.
Sederburg acknowledged that gigabit internet service will eventually be offered in the region, but said the collaborative effort’s goal is to make it happen faster and use it as a competitive advantage over other regions.
What’s the best way to attract a service provider? Sederburg said the WNC group has to show that there’s a market for it, and make it affordable and easy to use. (Thus the collaborative effort of the six municipalities, as well as a broader regional effort to work together.)
Mike Dempsey, dean and director of the Center for Graduate Studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville, and a group of Lenoir-Rhyne and UNC Asheville students presented findings from a survey of about 400 respondents. The survey found that the Western North Carolina region struggles to attract companies due to the lack of high-speed fiber optic networks, and that some existing companies don’t expand due to that need. The education and health care sectors of the economy can particularly benefit from gigabit internet, the students noted.
Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology and chief information office at N.C. State University, urged the group to find ways to creatively work together, and to think of the project not as a technology project, but as an economic development collaboration. He also noted that at least 50 other regions and communities across the U.S. are working on the same issue. He also urged the group to start working together now, rather than waiting for a provider.
“If you can’t figure out how to work as a community, it’s going to be too hard to overcome the inertia. There’s going to have to be some give and take,” he said.
Connectivity is only half the equation, he noted, adding that “if people don’t have devices, training and education, then connectivity is useless.” The community can start working on some of those issues now, he said.
The group should consider picking an economic sector that’s already a strong local asset – climate change or the outdoors, for example – and start working in that sector now, Hoit said.