State official says Macon County is ahead of the pack in broadband planning 

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Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Keith Conover, a technical analyst for North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office spoke to county officials this month about Macon County’s efforts to expand broadband and build the area’s infrastructure and connectability. Conover is responsible for working with the 30 counties in the western part of the state to improve broadband services. Conover recognized that getting internet to the western end of the state is a challenge, but Macon County has done more to make it happen than any other county Conover has worked with.

Conover has helped other rural areas in their quest to expand high-speed internet service, and is working with Macon County in trying to get more broadband internet, and told the commissioners that the county has done a lot of work already, but there is more to do,.

“When we start this process, I usually come in at the beginning and I make recommendations,” said Conover. “I recommend that you form a broadband committee, you’ve done that already. I recommend you put the right people in the room, I’ve met with your broadband committee, and you’ve done that already. I recommend that you do a survey, and you’ve already done that as well. There’s no other county that I’ve ever worked with, and I have over 30, that has put themselves in the position that Macon County has. The next step is very important however, and that’s the provider meeting.”

Macon County Commissioner Gary Shields has led the charge in improving the county’s connectivity and currently sits on the county’s broadband committee. Shields informed his fellow commissioners that having more access to broadband could really help Macon County economically.

“We’re very much aware that it’s a two-pronged problem. There’s an internet problem and a cell service problem. Some people get internet, but no cell service. Some people get cell service, but they don’t get internet. We realize this problem, and we’re trying to work through it and fill the gaps.”

Conover plans to help Macon County continue moving forward by helping facilitate an internet provider meeting, set to take place in mid-August and will be not be open to the public.

“That is typically a very productive and short meeting. We’ll present them with the results of the survey, we’ll also go out and take a look at your vertical assets, your towers and things like that,” said Conover. “We’d like to present a map that shows not only the demand, but any vertical assets that are available, so that any provider looking at those can match demand with the assets to see where there might be a fit. My job going forward is to try and make those connections. You can’t connect people to the internet until you connect people with people.”

County Manager Derek Roland touted a broadband survey that went out through the school system as being a beginning place for knowing which areas are of most concern in the county. The survey was conducted to see where the gaps in coverage are and the committee has met with many providers to hear about the challenges of expanding broadband infrastructure in the rural county.

Conover said that one advantage Macon County has, is a dedicated community and county to improving services. Showing companies that the county is dedicated to change, gives the county a lot of leverage with broadband companies, which he has seen in the past. When a company sees change is possible, they are more willing to work with the county.

“Almost immediately that company started losing customers and started making investments to provide more service to those areas,” Conover said of his efforts in Graham County to bring in competition. “There’s two things at hand here — one is to improve the broadband experience and the other is to maybe wake up some folks that thought that they had an area locked in as far as service goes.”

Conover’s efforts are covered financially by the state, but when it comes to implementing plans to expand broadband, he thinks he can help the county there, too, by looking for other funding opportunities. Just like other economically disadvantaged counties in the state, Macon could be eligible to receive funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to Conover. He helped McDowell County through the application process and they were approved for ARC funding and now Avery County is in the midst of the same process.

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