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Need speed? Towns seek input on broadband network

Your cable TV may be fine for watching the nightly news and the NFL but could it cut out or buffer less while streaming? Would you take advantage of a video call to the doctor’s office if you were suffering from a bug that didn’t seem to warrant a visit to a clinic? Would you like to work from home without having to worry about whether you could transmit a 100-mg graphic to your client?

 

City officials in Hendersonville, Laurel Park, Fletcher, Asheville, Biltmore Forest and Waynesville have been pondering questions like that for more than two years.
After lots of planning, study and discussion, the cities are ready to roll out to the public some potential options for expanding superfast internet service. At town hall meetings set for next week, city officials and broadband entrepreneurs hope to gauge the public’s appetite for faster delivery of entertainment and information.
“We started with visions of grandeur,” Hendersonville City Manager John Connet said of the working group. They had read about Google’s deployment of fiber optic cable in bigger cities like Raleigh and Charlotte. They thought AT&T might come in. There was no interest from the big providers.
“So we quickly kind of changed and realized the best thing for us to do is focus on some of the startups that already have a presence in the region,” he said.
That led to a request for proposals that received responses from two smaller companies, Hotwire Communications, which serves Weaverville, and RiverStreet Networks, a Wilkes County-based startup that owns rural telephone companies in Barnardsville and Saluda.
“When companies are looking to locate in Hendersonville or Laurel Park or Fletcher they’re looking at internet speeds and bandwidth to communicate with other facilities,” Connet said.


West ‘engine’ drives broadband study

 

The three Henderson County towns and others in Buncombe and Haywood counties formed WestNGN, which stands for Next Generation Networks. The pronunciation of the acronym is “engine,” which carries the double meaning as the motor to economic development and jobs creation. WestNGN works with ERC, the Economic and Research Consortium created 20 years ago to encourage a broadband network serving Western North Carolina.
Before the Legislature changed the law, cities could use local tax revenue to install broadband to encourage job creation.
“What the General Assembly wants our role to be is to encourage participation in the private market,” Connet said. If RiverStreet or another provider agreed to run the line, the city could grease the wheels by expediting permits or even providing space for a facility for broadband equipment.
At 100 megabits per second for uploading and downloading, broadband through fiber optic wires is 50 times faster than typical DSL lines to homes.
“It matters because it’s how we communicate in this world now and it’s not just for business. It’s also people in their homes, people who work from home,” said Laurel Park Town Manager Alison Alexander, who has led her town’s participation in WestNGN. The increasing use of internet-based technology in homes, such as medical devices that monitor heart rates or diabetic patients, makes faster data speeds an issue for health, especially for the elderly. “A very good example we have is on Pisgah Drive we have a number of medical offices and medical facilities and medicine is one of the major users of high-speed internet because of all the imaging,” Alexander said.
“This may sound like it’s pie in the sky but it’s not,” she added. “We need to be competitive. Copper cable has physical limits as to how much data it can carry. The incumbent providers are doing everything they can to maximize that. But we’re looking at infrastructure beyond copper wire.”


ERC encourages broadband

 

Hunter Goosmann, CEO of the ERC, has been working on broadband deployment for 15 years. The ERC has installed infrastructure in various communities; the city of Hendersonville uses an ERC line to monitor its water and sewer plants. The applications are virtually endless, Goosmann said.
“In the simplest terms, increasingly everything we do in regards to education and entertainment as well as personal connection is all routed through the internet,” he said.
Asked whether broadband is mainly for households or business, Goosmann said, “It’s for everything thing. The companies are going to want to come here but they won’t come here if they don’t have access to that infrastructure.” On a more human scale, Goosmann imagines a working mom or dad having to stay at home with a sick child. With broadband access, they would be able to work from home. Without it, maybe not. “Or what about the people who simply want to work remotely,” he added. “In Western North Carolina, we have a lot of home-based businesses. We have a lot of home schools.”
ERC can makes its fiber optic line available to government but not to households.
“ERC is a player in this,” Alexander said. “They can provide access to public entities, and they can also lease fiber to any other provider that wants it. The idea isn’t to have overlapping layers but to have the network available for anybody that needs it and we don’t have that right now.”
Paul Hansen, a Laurel Park Town Council member who serves on the WestNGN group, sees broadband expansion as a key to growth and quality of life.
“For the region and especially for Laurel Park, the WestNGN effort is trying to bring in fiber,” he said. “What we have today they call high speed but it really isn’t high speed. It comes pretty slow sometime. (True broadband) is going to be critical to the future of this region. The speeds we have today just aren’t fast enough for the kind of work people do at home. … It’s just something that is a basic infrastructure need just like electricity is today. In Laurel Park, it’s important not only for small business but future growth and being able to attract people who want to live in Laure Park” and work from home.


Digital divide

Any number of providers — large and small — could come into the market and try to sell fiber optic connections. RiverStreet is the one that has shown the most interest so far. A spinoff of Wilkes Communications, just west of Winston-Salem, RiverStreet now owns relatively small systems in North Carolina and Virginia serving 16,000 customers. It’s all about the digital divide, said Jody Call, RiverStreet’s chief technology officer.
“It’s been discussed before and it’s the haves and have-nots,” Call said. Years ago, the haves had computers. “Now it’s more about those who have access to broadband and those who don’t.”
The FCC defines broadband as “25 megabits down and 3 megabits up,” referring to upload and download speeds per second. “Some say 10 down and 1 up but anything less than that is not sufficient for any type of real usage of Netflix” and other streaming services. Fiber typically is 50 times faster than traditional copper-wire delivery.
“The reason it’s so important is you have unserved customers,” he said. “We’re back to where we were in 1934 with the telecommunications act of 1934 where the FCC said everyone should have the right to a dial tone or telephone and now the FCC is saying the same thing about broadband. That’s what we’re trying to crack the nut on — how to get this deployed to all these locations.”
Besides entertainment on the living room TV, broadband applications include research, students doing homework or taking classes, telemedicine and many forms of working from home. RiverStreet charges around $90 a month for it broadband-supplied telephone, internet and cable TV service. When it bought the rural telephone companies, RiverStreet gained about 800 customers in Barnardsville and 1,200 in Saluda. In between those small towns is a potentially fertile ground for growth.
“The reason we’re doing this with Land of Sky (regional planning council) and WestNGN is that Hendersonville, Fletcher, Laurel Park and Biltmore Forest lie directly between Barnardsville and Saluda so there’s that whole corridor through there we need to connect anyway,” Call said. Signing up a large number of subscribers would “help subsidize connecting those two locations but also would help to push out further into the rural communities.”
The critical factor is market demand.
“If AT&T, Morris and Time-Warner cable are providing adequate service in these areas then that will totally remove the need for us to come in,” he said.
The ERC’s Goosmann underscored that point.
“What the providers need to know is who’s interested and what are the issues they’re experiencing and what are they looking for,” Goosmann said. “For example, if you have 10 homes on a mile in Henderson County and only a couple are truly interested in getting a different type of service than what they have today, it’s up to the provider to say, ‘Wow, it doesn’t make sense for us to do that type of investment.’ Because the investment in this type of infrastructure is very significant and it’s all up front.”

‘Not a short term fix’

At next week’s town hall meetings, RiverStreet will invite participants to visit its website and type in their address, creating a pinpoint on a map.
“It just lets us know where they are,” Call said. “We will divide it into zones after we see the pins on the map, based on now many structures are already there. We like to get a 30-40 percent penetration rate but we have overbuilt areas that have much less, especially if there’s a business in there that lets you pay the bills a little more.”
As for who pays it’s clearly the provider.
“We would install the infrastructure, but there’s also grant funding opportunities,” Call said. “That doesn’t guarantee that we get these grants. There are channels available to get funding.”
Communities have to understand, too, that buildout is a long-range proposition — 10 to 20 years.
“When we overbuilt it with fiber optic in Wilkes County we did it in about 10 years,” he said. “That’s because we got a lot of grant funding and low interest loans from the federal government.”
As part of their study of the issue, the WestNGN members made a field trip to see a model of broadband expansion.
“We went over to Chattanooga. They put in fiber to the home to everybody,” Hansen said. The city runs the electric utility, too, and it wanted to add a broadband network. When the city asked private providers if they wanted to participate, the providers said no. But once the city installed broadband, the providers jumped in, fearing the loss of customers. “The price is based on competition,” Hansen said. “If you get more than one provider, competition sets the price.”
Hansen hopes the town hall meetings will show residents the value in moving millions of bits of data — whether a Netflix movie or a heartbeat — as fast as lightning.
“Hopefully we’re reaching out to residents to show the need for the service and why it would improve their quality of life in Laurel Park and how it could keep improving the quality of life as the infrastructure is developed and technology is developed,” Hansen said. “If I needed to send information to my doctor I would need to upload at a much higher speed in order to get all the data to him in a fast way. It’s kind of like, if you build it they’ll come.”
“This is not a short-term fix,” Hendersonville manager Connet said. “This is over the long haul. For us to truly be a 21st century community, we need to have fiber optic deployed through all three communities. The next-generation job is going to rely on (broadband) infrastructure. For the younger generation that wants to get involved in technology, it allows them to live in our community and connect to much larger cities.”

 

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The broadband group is asking residents to fill out a survey about their internet service. The survey is at www.hvlnc.gov, www.fletchernc.org or www.laurelpark.org. Town hall meetings are 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, at Fletcher Town Hall, 300 Old Cane Creek Road, Fletcher; 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, at First Congregational Church, 1735 Fifth Avenue West, Laurel Park; and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the Hendersonville Operations Center, 305 Williams St.