Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
Deanna Stager never used to think about gigabytes to sell homes.
“We first started noticing it probably five years ago,” the Unique Properties broker said of the importance of high-speed Internet to young buyers. “That’s what really kills a lot of sales.”
From young entrepreneurs to telecommuters, without broadband Internet, homes that may otherwise sell in a month may linger on the market for a year. Meanwhile, the county loses the type of people who contribute to economic growth.
Morris Communications general manager Tony Carter said high-speed Internet has ceased to be a luxury and is now considered a necessity along the lines of electric and gas.
“We get a lot of calls from realtors,” Carter said from his office in Hendersonville. “A lot of sales depend on it.”
Morris invested close to $1 million on upgrades and expansion last year in Macon County. The upgrades will allow the company to offer 1 gigabyte of download speed by the end of the year. But Morris only made those investments because it saw a five-year return on investment.
“It’s what we shoot for, we stretch it sometimes,” said Carter of the five-year benchmark. “It basically boils down to the cost of building out in the terrain.”
Last year, one Holly Springs businessman and Frontier Internet customer got sick of having lousy Internet and he took the matter into his own hands. He called Frontier, then Morris Communications. Their cables didn’t reach his house, but they were close.
With some negotiation, the customer, County Commissioner Karl Gillespie, wrote a check to Morris Communications to lay the cables that brought high-speed Internet to his home and about half a dozen other customers on his block.
“Can the county do what I did?” asked Gillespie, whose company, National Communications, Inc., lays fiber optic cables. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Gillespie already convinced the Board of Commissioners to allocate $400,000 to improving Internet access in the county. Now they need to find a way to spend it.
A model for expanding broadband
Gillespie’s plan would work something like this, he explained.The county identifies areas that with a small, one-time grant to an Internet provider would bridge the gap between the cost of providing Internet and what that company’s business model allows them to invest.
In the scenario, a county consultant would go door-to-door asking how much each resident would be willing to pay for broadband Internet and passes that information along to the broadband company. The company then evaluates the return on investment with the county’s grant and the new customers. If the numbers work for the private provider, Internet access expands in that area. The county repeats the model in other areas around the county.
The trouble is, the county isn’t sure yet if it’s legal.
“Then you’d be really stuck in the mud, with a black eye,” Gillespie said, if the county were to move forward without strong legal grounds.
He noted that county manager Derek Roland, economic development director Tommy Jenkins, county attorney Chester Jones and an attorney specializing in broadband are all researching the issue. Gillespie could not offer a timeline for getting an answer.
One thing is certain: “All the work we’ve done up to this point, we’ve scored a zero.”
Of his proposal, he said, “It’ll get us some results and it’ll give us a mechanism to move forward with.”
Until then, realtors like Stager are left with some mighty beautiful views from unsold homes.
“Satisfied? No,” she said when asked if local government was doing enough to help. In areas like Wayah Road past the LBJ Job Corps, if a satellite provider like HughesNet can’t catch a signal at a monthly cost about double what residents pay in town, home sellers are out of luck. “We wish we could get it everywhere, I just know it’s very costly.”
The State of North Carolina is offering $10 million in GREAT grants to Internet providers to expand rural access. Morris is hoping it will get some of that booty to the tune of $366,000. The company would then make its own investment of $300,000 that could add service to 221 more local homes.
Gillespie knows broadband is key to attracting entrepreneurs to Macon County who create new jobs.
“Those are great paying jobs. They’re great paying jobs,” he said. “They’re the kind of folks that you want to have in your community. They get involved in the community. I mean, they’re good paying jobs and everything that goes along with it.”