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Crowds turn out to hear about broadband

RiverStreet CEO Eric Cramer talks about a fiber optic network at a town hall meeting last week in Laurel Park.   RiverStreet CEO Eric Cramer talks about a fiber optic network at a town hall meeting last week in Laurel Park.

LAUREL PARK — A town hall meeting about high-speed internet drew 114 people to the First Congregational Church of Christ earlier this month, a sign of intense interest in the topic.

The towns of Laurel Park, Fletcher and Hendersonville all held town hall meetings as the latest step in their effort to gauge public interest in a fiber optic network connecting the three towns. For two years, the towns have been exploring the idea at the staff level and in talks with high-speed internet providers. A cooperative effort called West NGN (pronounced West engine) seeks to expand a fiber optic wiring to the communities — an infrastructure advancement that promoters say could lead to high-tech jobs, more telemedicine and more reliable delivery of hme entertainment like movie streaming.
RiverStreet Networks, a for-profit company that is part of the nonprofit Wilkes Telephone Membership Cooperative, would potentially be the provider of fiber-optic lines if the plan goes forward. The turnout in all three towns encouraged RiverStreet executives and the West NGN members.
In an online survey that drew 1,094 responses, 88 percent of respondents said they were highly interested in getting broadband. Fifty-one percent of those were Morris Broadband customers and 40 percent had AT&T.
RiverStreet Networks purchased small telephone cooperatives in Barnardsville and Saluda, giving the broadband company a base on either side of the West NGN communities, which also includes Biltmore Forest.
“What’s attractive about this opportunity here is this lines up right between Barnardsville and Saluda,” Eric Cramer, RiverStreet’s president and CEO, told the Laurel Park crowd. “These four line up really well. … This looks like a very good opportunity for us, just based on the location and demographics.”
RiverStreet now has an unlimited bundle service offering phone, internet and digital TV for $95 a month at a minimum speeds of 25 Mb for downloads and 3 Mb for uploading.
If enough people expressed interest and West NGN gave the go-ahead RiverStreet would start a campaign to sign up customers.
“The next step for us would be a really intensive marketing campaign,” Cramer said, starting with postcards, billboards and radio spots promoting the RiverStreet service. “Our target is 40 percent. We can usually make the investment if 40 percent of the people are willing to switch. … The more customers we have the lower we can keep the rate. Our goal is to never raise our prices again.”
Morris Broadband CEO Tony Carter, who spoke after Cramer, fielded questions about service and the company’s reliability from some unhappy customers. He emphasized that Morris, which acquired the Henderson County cable TV system from Mediacom in 2009, has invested millions of dollars in backup power systems, coax cable improvements and fiber business products. Its Docsis 3.1 packages offer higher speeds and more high-speed offerings are coming by March, he said.