WNC preparing for globally competitive 21st century.
Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins and other officials across the state believe that expanding broadband internet access in North Carolina will better prepare Tar Heels for the globally competitive 21st. century economy. Scott Hamilton, President and CEO of AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, and Macon County EDC Director Tommy Jenkins managed to bring together some key players last Thursday, Dec.1, at Southwestern Community College’s Macon campus, where the discussion centered on how to expand broadband internet access to Western North Carolina’s rural areas.
A recurring message during the meeting was the potential of Macon County and other WNC communities, as the guest speakers seemed to agree that the aesthetics of the region make the mountains of North Carolina an attractive destination for aspiring entrepreneurs and investors. Moreover, the accessibility of broadband internet access will help build a strong foundation for public education in the region and bring clean, high-tech jobs to the area, according to Freddoso and other advocates of broadband. Freddoso explained that broadband internet access created 2.6 new jobs for every job loss, offering more evidence to support the expansion of broadband to more isolated areas in rural WNC.
Ken Maxwell, General Manager of Frontier Communications, attended the meeting, along with Dr. Cecil Groves, former president of SCC and current CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, and Joe Freddoso, CEO of Making Connections in North Carolina (MCNC). Each company leader talked about their respective organizations and what they and other leaders in Western North Carolina (WNC) can do to ensure that broadband internet access expands throughout the area.
Freddoso commented during his presentation about WNC’s potential in terms of economic development, noting that area leaders have done a great deal already in bringing high-speed internet to mountain residents. MCNC, a non-profit organization created by the N.C. General Assembly in 1980, works to bring an advanced communications network to the institutions of the University of North Carolina system, North Carolina’s independent colleges and universities, 58 N.C. community colleges, North Carolina’s K- 12 Schools, public libraries, and public health and safety facilities. The organization also provides its networking system to most non-profit and university hospitals.
Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, MCNC was able to secure a $104 million grant to enhance the North Carolina Research and Education Network Community (NCREN) through public/private partnerships, which will serve the health-care, public safety, and other public sector customers. Freddoso added that private sector service providers will benefit from the funding projects as well. Companies will be able to utilize the network to supply broadband service to underserved consumers and underserved small businesses, an essential element in expanding broadband internet service to all North Carolinians. MCNC raised $40 million in private matching funds as required by the federal Recovery Act program. The matching funds were provided by the Golden LEAF Foundation, the MCNC endowment fund, and private telecommunications company FRC. The $144 million project to expand 2,500 miles of NCREN will create or save 2,500 engineering, construction, and manufacturing jobs in the state, according to estimates provided by MCNC.
Freddoso went on to explain that due to the terrain and relative isolation of WNC, further expansion of the network in this area poses problems. He emphasized the importance of collaboration, saying that counties can no longer act as if neighboring counties are their only competitors. Countries like China, India, Brazil, and Japan are our competitors now, and policy makers should act accordingly, emphasized Freddoso. He did mention that organizations such as BalsamWest FiberNET have filled the void in many ways. Dr. Cecil Groves spoke for a few minutes at the meeting, briefing attendees about the origins of BalsamWest Fiber- NET and the future goals of the organization.
Groves talked about the inadequate political demand of high speed fiber net in WNC, explaining that policymakers in Raleigh largely ignored the region in terms of economic development for many years. After years of lobbying, The Rural Prosperity Task Force was formed in 1999, a committee created to develop initiatives and incentives to bring broadband to the mountains. Yet, without the undertakings of Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises and Michel Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, BalsamWest FiberNET would not exist.
The two came together and founded the company in 2003, and since that time, the company has laid more than 300 miles of underground fiber in 10 counties in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. “We can compete with Atlanta. We can compete with Asheville, and we can compete with Hickory with the kind of technology businesses we have here,” said Groves. “We tend at times to have the desire to compete with smaller towns, but we have the capacity we need to compete with anybody,” he said.
Groves noted that a comprehensive hybrid solution and the collaboration among private competitors in the broadband business is essential in order to expand their services to people in rural areas. “We have everything going for us,” said Groves about the WNC community. “We can do it all if we want to do it. The pieces are in place. This is not a fight but an effort to get service to rural areas,” stated Groves about partnering with public and private entities.
Ken Maxwell spoke about Frontier Communications’ efforts to enhance their services to customers throughout the region. Frontier took over the Verizon access line back in July of 2010, operating in 11 counties in WNC. Maxwell described the importance of broadband in rural areas, believing that broadband initiatives are vital if WNC is going to compete in the future economy. “Out here in Western North Carolina there are a lot of areas that don’t have any broadband,” said Maxwell while referring to his company’s desire to build a larger broadband network in the mountains.
Since taking over in 2010, Frontier has increased their bandwidth for customers. Bandwidth is the connection and processing speed of the internet. Maxwell stated that Frontier has six times more bandwidth capacity than it did in 2010, an achievement that was challenging for the organization to accomplish given the terrain of the region. Maxwell said that it should help Frontier add new customers as a result. “This is a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done here,” added Maxwell. He later said that it was crucial to install and update a comprehensive broadband infrastructure network in rural areas for economic reasons, even citing that home buyers will be reluctant to purchase a home without broadband access.
Local government officials and business leaders seem to agree about the enormous implications of the topic, as the meeting demonstrated. While problems dealing with the terrain of the area and private investment are concerning, the benefits of broadband seem to outweigh the service costs, according to Maxwell, Groves, and Freddoso.
“High-speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” said Freddoso. “Having high-speed connectivity is often required to pursue, apply for, and obtain jobs,” he said. The collaboration among public officials and private investors will also play a key role in broadband to every North Carolina citizen, according to Dr. Cecil Groves.
MCNC recently announced that their first round funding project is nearly complete, encompassing 37 counties in southeastern and western N.C., totaling 414 miles of new network capacity.