Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Internet connectivity has been an issue in Macon County for as long as the technology has existed and with economic development and infrastructure needs on the table for the Macon County Planning Board, board members heard from the town of Highlands IT Director Matt Shuler, and Matt Saenger with Balsam West about the benefits and process of expanding internet services in rural Western North Carolina.

With residents complaining to the town about the lack of connectivity in Highlands, town officials set out to do something about it. In order to bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses, Highlands has implemented a plan to deploy city-owned Internet network infrastructure through Altitude Community Broadband.

Shuler noted that larger Internet providers have failed to offer service to the town’s 1,000 residents and the residents who are able to get some form of Internet, are often fighting with the companies over connectivity problems. To meet the needs of the town’s residents as well as the more than 20,000 people who vacation in the mountain town throughout the year, in January, the town board voted to borrow $40,000 from the town’s General Fund and $210,000 from its Electric Enterprise Fund to deploy and launch the new service. The loan will be repaid with revenue from the new service.

According to Shuler, Highlands offers both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless service to residents and businesses in the downtown area. Prices vary based on the location requesting the services, but the lowest cost package begins at $34.99 for a basic, four megabit download speed to an extreme package that connects an entire home and comes with a free Roku and 50 MBPS (megabits per second) download speeds for $119.98 a month.

Shuler explained that when the service was launched, about 20 people were placed on a trial period to ensure sustainability. Now the service has 55 subscribers and a waiting list that will be better addressed when additional employees who have already been hired are fully trained.

Highlands was only recently allowed to provide internet after the FCC overturned a broadband ruling that prohibited municipalities from offering the service. While municipalities are allowed to provide broadband, counties are not, which is something Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor said he would like to see change for rural areas. Macon County Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins agreed that connectivity is one of the most important visions county leaders should be focusing on.

“The most important infrastructure planning for this board is working with middle mile providers to provide last mile connectivity in Macon County,” said Jenkins. “This is as important to today’s generation as electricity was when electricity was first brought to Macon County.”

Planning Board member John Shearl said he believes that public entities providing internet services would be in conflict with private businesses offering the services because for profit companies cannot offer the same services for the same prices as a government can. Shearl asked why private businesses weren’t stepping up to provide Internet the way Highlands does.

Planning board member Karl Gillespie noted that the lack of service options in the county is not for lack of trying but rather because private businesses simply don’t want to provide the service in the outlying areas. Gillespie, Shuler, and Saenger all explained that one reason it’s easier for the town to offer the service is because they own the telecommunication towers needed for the service. A private provider would have to pay to use the poles.

Macon County Planning Board Chair Chris Hanners said that the first thing the county can do in terms of planning for connectivity infrastructure would be to have commissioners pass the new telecommunications ordinance the planning board has been working on since January. Commissioners are expected to vote on the new ordinance in August.