Broadband Access in Macon County
The subject of how to get better internet access for both the residents and businesses in Macon County has been discussed at virtually all levels for the past several years now. Yet, nothing has changed and, in fact, there have been some, but not many initiatives in that direction which have shown any significant progress. The obstacles are well understood:
- We live in an environment of hills, mountains, meandering valleys and forests.
- We are a largely rural collection of communities in a county that has two towns and not a lot of people, about 36,000 last I saw.
- The 800lb monster in the room, onerous legislation that clearly is biased toward large telecoms preventing local governments from assisting any publicly-funded effort to change the status quo.
The first obstacle is not going to change, but, that said, it is not the real reason we do not have broadband access. We have been told for a long time that the cost to bury fiber into our ground is hugely prohibitive, yet there is already an abundance of fiber buried in the right-of-ways of our state roads here and other parts of Western North Carolina and most has never been used. Moreover, every bit of it was funded by public money through a federal program called, “Connect America.” Unfortunately, all this “dark” fiber is, in Macon County, owned by a single telecom who has publicly stated no interest in using it to bring broadband into the county it was supposed to “connect” to high-speed internet. There is another internet provider who operates in Macon County and provides internet access via cable services. They, however, have publicly stated that there is little interest on their part to expand their existing service area albeit they are enhancing the services they provide within that service area. So, in essence, we have two providers, each with their own turf – or, monopoly – that are not inclined to meet the needs of their local market; i.e., us.
The second obstacle is a mixed blessing. Most of us live here because we are largely a collection of rural communities in a county with two towns. That’s the good part. The bad part is that is why the larger telecoms are so enthusiastically uninterested in serving this market with its small clusters of residents and businesses. It’s neither the bumpy ground nor the abundance of leafy trees that stops the telecoms; it’s the absence of enough money to make it worth their attention, pure and simple. On the other hand, the large telecoms live in dire fear of grass roots or community level solutions to this problem because, (a) we may eventually grow enough to be profitable or (b) there may be a technology that comes along some day that allows them to capture (and ‘capture’ it would be) our market and, finally, the larger reason; the telecoms are afraid that if internet access were to become a utility – which it should be – then their control over this industry in all its facets will be threatened and their shareholders further disillusioned by their performance. Keep in mind; this is an industry that is built on being a monopoly. It does not do well in a competitive environment as proven by the financial state of all their internet enterprises. Things like ‘churn’ rates and market acquisition and maintenance costs adversely impact their bottom line in a competitive environment and were grass roots internet access to take hold, all is lost in their minds. So, they thwart the efforts of communities like ours by influencing legislation at state and, where possible, federal levels, but they do so in a way that does not prevent them from accessing billions of dollars of public money to do things like bury a lot of fiber they have no intention of ever using and declaring victory in the battle to connect rural communities to the internet. That leads us to …
The third obstacle which is legislation handed down by the state legislature that is specifically and explicitly designed to prevent rural communities from developing access to high-speed internet. Granted, the legislative press office, unabashedly, would have you believe that the legislature is supportive of community efforts, but, then again, why would they not as they still need you to believe in their good intentions so as to garner your votes. But, in reality, their ‘good’ intentions are anything but in this matter. For example, AT&T, alone, has pumped millions into state legislature campaign coffers year after year. This money, which out-sizes individual campaign contributions by over 3 to 1, is not given altruistically. In return, North Carolina’s legislature has met every effort to prevent local municipalities – like Highlands and Wilson, NC – and counties from not just providing internet access directly as a utility, but from even supporting any effort that would threaten the eventual expansion of large telecom monopolies into rural (I suppose they would not be so “rural” when that happens) communities.
In an article appearing in the Franklin Press not too long ago, our local state representative – who is to be applauded for at least trying to soften the legislature’s stance – took away from his efforts the lesson that Western Carolina’s internet problem would likely have to be solved at the community level. In a more recent article appearing in the Macon County News, Macon County officials acknowledged the futility of their efforts to meet their constituency’s needs after hearing from a local real estate agent as to how the absence of high-speed internet is preventing the sale of homes in our county and, in general, suppressing overall property values. Their solution was to send someone door-to-door to ask how much residents and businesses would pay for internet access and hope it was enough to attract large telecom interest. I suspect it will not and, more than likely, the door-knocking exercise will become simply another desperate exercise in futility. They also want to look at providing grants to aid community level efforts, but, again, that is subject to legislative oversight which, has Highlands has experienced, can change every time local government thinks it has found a way to solve this problem. I am not faulting our local county officials as I know for a fact they want to solve this problem and the Highlands government has been anything if not determined to bring high speed internet to their constituency. They clearly understand the public health, safety and general welfare needs that are being addressed in larger urban areas but not here. They are sensitive to the desire of families wanting to see high-paying jobs come here instead of their children having to move hundreds of miles away to find those jobs. And, they, like their constituents, want to have their investments in real estate and other enterprises not constrained for lack of modern service like internet access.
So, what can be done here? Some communities have arrived at the reality that this is an issue that will be solved by communities and not – in our life time – through the geologic pace of state and federal government’s moving to solve it on industry terms. And, for those who believe that satellite delivered services or cellular-based “5G” (whatever that turns out to be after the hype) will save the day, I suspect that day, as it were, will come, maybe, well after your children have passed on to a better place. Any satellite services like Elon Musk’s “orbiting mesh network” are in their embryonic stages at best and, even if this concept does ‘fly’, most of the capacity will be gobbled-up by government and industry, as has been the case with efforts such as ViaSat.
The only near term solutions are to be found in organizations like Little T Broadband Service, Inc – a 501(c)(3) member-owned, non-profit recently formed under the auspices of the Otto Community – are beginning to rise-up from communities determined not to allow their businesses from being constrained for lack of the ability to access services via the internet they need to thrive and to have reliable, steady internet access that, frankly, only real broadband can offer. These non-profit entities are able to leverage grants and subsidized loans to not only bring high speed internet to the community but also find the funds to subsidize the operation and delivery of high-speed internet until such time as the community grows large enough or the technology become cheap enough not to require subsidization. One of the lessons to be taken from the failed efforts of programs like “Connect America” that, even assuming they somehow do connect real people to real broadband, what then? What and how is the continued operation going to be paid? Macon County is a tier 2 county and, if you remove the hyper-wealth that inhabits Highlands, it is, in fact, a tier 1 county. Asking people how much they are willing to pay begs the obvious answer: not that much. But, most could afford broadband access – defined as sustained 25 megabits per second (mps) download and 3 mps upload – if priced similar to what is offered in larger urban areas, say, like Atlanta or Asheville. But, to do that, subsidization is needed to build the infrastructure necessary to connect homes and businesses but, as well, continuing subsidization is required until population mass or the local economy can support services without subsidization. Local non-profits are the only mechanisms that can provide the services on the one hand and, on the other hand, the economic model that will insure most of the rural community can have access to broadband. To succeed, this approach needs a lot of help and support from the community itself and, as well, those who serve that community with other services. The key to success is public-private partnerships and something in the middle to coordinate and insure a viable service is provided and, moreover, can be sustained and expanded into the future in terms of both scale and scope of services that can be delivered.