Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
For as long as the internet has existed, conversations on its availability in rural America have also existed. In Macon County, both phone service and internet connection are an ongoing topic of conversation, not just from an economic standpoint, but for the quality of life for residents in the county.
In an attempt to bring better connectivity to residents in Macon County, county leaders invited internet providers in the region to the October meeting of the board of commissioners to discuss possible partnerships or paths to take to get more options for residents who are currently without internet.
“We want this to be kind of an informal conversation between this board and each of you as providers to see what we can do, if there is anything we can do to address the significant concern of internet connectivity in Macon County,” said Commission Chair Kevin Corbin. “What do you need from us, how can we help, what are your concerns, just an open dialogue that can help us understand where we stand and if improvements are even possible.”
Representatives from Morris Broadband, Balsam West, Frontier, and Dnet were all present on Tuesday night and engaged in a discussion on how to improve connectivity in Macon County.
“For us, it’s all about the terrain and the geography,” Morris Broadband General Manager Tony Carter said of what prevents them from serving a greater population in Macon County. “It becomes extremely expensive to run lines to the more remote areas of the county and making that commitment without knowing what our return is going to be is something we just can’t do as a business.”
Carter and the other providers all agreed that the mountainous terrain of Macon County makes getting access to the valleys and ridges in Macon County costly.
According to Carter, it cost anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 per mile to run fiber. That doesn’t include the cost of right-of-way acquisitions, that is just the cost of the mile of fiber.
“With prices like that, it would be years before seeing a return and while we used to say we would need to see a return on our investment in five years, that time span is now down to three and even two years sometimes,” said Nick Fouts, local representative for Frontier Communications.
Terri McElroy, Chief Executive Officer for Balsam West noted that it isn’t just fiber that cost that much, but Balsam West has found that the cost of expanding wireless in the area typically cost the same because regulations surrounding pole heights and other factors.
“This is strictly a hypothetical question, but would it be possible for some sort of partnership between your private companies, local governments and maybe the state to help reduce those expansion costs to make it more feasible for you,” asked Commission Corbin.
The providers agreed and said in certain cases, those partnerships have been the very reason expansion has been possible in rural communities.
Judy Chapman with Dnet noted that in Graham County, the Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team (GREAT) covered the cost of switches and equipment needed for wireless expansion, making it possible to improve the infrastructure needed to get internet connectivity to more residents.
Through an agreement with DNet and Graham County, GREAT was able to provide wireless internet access to Graham County residents via Wachacha Bald tower at a commitment from GREAT of $80,000. Through GREAT’s Frontier Project, additional high speed internet/DSL service was provided in Tuskeegee and Panther Creek area as a result of grant from Connect America Fund in the amount of $227,775 that GREAT worked to secure.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale noted that looking for those types of opportunities locally is something he wants to ensure that Macon County leaders and the providers continue to explore.
“Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury, it is essential for business, education, and just day-to-day life,” said Beale. “I feel like we [Macon County] are being penalized for where we live. We are being held back and punished for living here. That just isn’t right and something needs to be done.”
The Macon County Planning Board has developed a coverage map of the county showing where phone and internet access is available. Each of the providers noted that having access to that document, which they were given Tuesday night, will help see areas that are not currently being serviced and is the first step in seeing if expansion is possible and affordable at this time.
In addition to the coverage map already prepared by the county, County Manager Derek Roland noted that the county’s mapping department has the capability to show properties in the county with structures over $10,000, which are likely residence. The providers noted that would be beneficial because then they would have an idea of how many customs are possible in any given area of the county. Knowing how many residences are in an area, and being able to determine the possible customer acquisition before investing in the infrastructure to expand, is something the providers agreed would be greatly beneficial.
Corbin ended the conversation emphasizing the importance of not letting the conversation stop at that initial meeting and instead ensuring follow ups are done to move forward with ensuring Maconians are connected.