What’s new on the plateau

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Patrick Taylor Highlands Mayor

I know folks have been wondering about where the town stands on the fiber optic broadband project. I haven’t been talking about it recently, but progress has been made. Let me provide a review. First, the town participated about four years ago with several other towns in challenging the authority of the state to regulate and limit municipal broadband initiatives. These communities argued before the FCC that there was a need for local governments in rural and underserved areas to create their own broadband networks rather than relying on private providers that were reluctant to invest in small, remote markets. In a 3 to 2 vote the FCC declared they regulated broadband and not the states. We waited for about 6 months for any court challenges to that vote before setting up Altitude Broadband. About a year later there was a federal court challenge that overturned the FCC decision. Since that time we have worked to be in compliance with North Carolina statutes, namely HB 129, in creating a private/public partnership with Wide Open Networks. When the fiber optic network is built and operational, Wide Open will operate it by providing bandwidth for other private providers to deliver content and programming to customers. Highlands will benefit by developing a smart utility grid. We all will benefit by being a fully connected community. Wide Open and their associates have designed a fiber optic network that will be available to all of our electric utility customers. The network design also includes every parcel in the town limits that may want future service. Wide Open will eventually consider providing service beyond the town. Subcontractors for Wide Open have been creating construction documents in preparation for requesting contractor bids to build the network. These documents and drawings are specific plans to run fiber throughout Highlands. The plans includes substantially more fibers than will be required to initially light up the network. Additional capacity is important for the future needs. With this network each customer will have a dedicated fiber that runs back to network servers. That individual fiber system means the availability of almost unlimited bandwidth to customers now and well into the future. The demand for bandwidth is just getting started. Small cell network technology is being developed by major communication providers. It would involve placing broadband antennas and equipment on utility poles about every 700 feet to support innovations like automated vehicles. This fiber optic network can be integrated with this small cell system in the future. What are the next steps? First, contractor bids will be acquired to determine costs to build the network. Second, we will have to get permission from the Local Government Commission to borrow money to build our portion of the network. That loan will be repaid with lease fees from Wide Open Networks to the town. Finally, if there are no unforeseen problems, construction could begin as early as this coming March. The good news is that the construction will take months rather than years.

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