Broadband takes center stage at commissioners meeting

Macon County Courthouse photo by Vickie Carpenter

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

With the legalities still needing to be worked out, the Macon County Board of Commissioners approved funding for two community-backed broadband plans during last week’s monthly meeting. 

Pulling from economic development funds already in the budget, Commissioner Ronnie Beale made a motion to provide funds to the town of Highlands and the nonprofit Little T Broadband Services, which serves Otto and Scaly Mountain, to bring broadband to their respective areas of the county. 

Although both groups are in different phases of implementation – Highlands being in the build out stage and Little T being in the planning phase – commissioners noted that if rural Macon County is ever going to get internet connectivity it is up to the community. 

“If we wait on the federal government or the state, we are going to just keep waiting,” said Beale. “We have been talking about this for five years now and it’s time to do something and these groups are doing all the heavy lifting.” 

The vote to allocate funding over a two-year period with periodic progress reviews, passed 4-1 with Commissioner Karl Gillespie casting the lone nay vote. Gillespie noted that he supported the initiative but wanted to see more of a plan before providing funding to the groups to avoid setting a precedent. 

Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor updated commissioners about the town’s progress in building out a fiber network to connect more than 3,000 residents and businesses. Highlands town board is investing $4.6 million to expand the town’s broadband capabilities to every house within the city limits.

While Highlands has been working on the project for quite a while, during last month’s Macon County Commissioners meeting was the first opportunity for commissioners to learn of the town’s efforts and opportunity to partner with the town of Highlands.

Taylor asked commissioners to consider helping to fund the project to the tune of $1 million, or $250,000 over the next four years. Commissioners voted last week on the request, agreeing to fund half of the request at $250,000 over the next two years. 

Taylor informed commissioners that most of the pre-work is completed and now all they are waiting for are the supplies and materials needed to begin the builds. 

“Fiber is in high demand so there has been some backlog getting the supplies our contractor needs to begin,” said Mayor Taylor Tuesday night. “As soon as we get the materials, we have everything in place to get to work.” 

More than just the town of Highlands, Mayor Taylor said the ultimate goal of Wide Open Network, with whom Highlands is partnering for the fiber build out, is to reach any area of the county possible through connecting with the infrastructure being built by Highlands. The expansion opportunities are endless and could potentially serve a large portion of the county. 

Commissioners also voted to provide Little T with half of their request of $178,000, settling on $89,000. Little T Broadband services is a nonprofit formed specifically to bring broadband access to south Macon County. The volunteer group has done extensive research and has partnered with BalsamWest and Haywood EMC to bring wireless internet to southern Macon County by stringing lines along the power poles in the area. 

Little T plans to implement, deploy, and operate a broadband network, which is largely fiber-to-home with some expected application of fixed wireless. The group settled on high-level architecture as their program design. 

The funds Little T requested are for grant development and management. Little T plans to secure available grants to help with the cost of the project and implementation. 

Both groups commended Rep. Kevin Corbin for his work on the state level in attempting to get the FIBER NC Act passed, which would pave the way for local governments to fund broadband infrastructure. While Corbin’s bill is stuck in committee, Macon commissioners said the opportunities presented last week needn’t wait on the state. 

County Attorney Chester Jones was directed to look into the legalities of providing funding to community groups — which has been done by select counties across the state. Jones cautioned that governments already providing taxpayer dollars for broadband were pushing the envelope and cautioned the county’s need to review the legality of doing such. 

The motion to fund the projects was passed contingent on receiving Jones’ eventual seal of approval.