Patrick Taylor Highlands Mayor
At the December Highlands Town Board Meeting a public hearing was held requesting the N.C. Local Government Commission to approve a loan for the town to build the aerial portion of the fiber optic broadband network. During the public comment several residents expressed a number of concerns. These concerns ranged from the suggestion that the board had hurriedly thrown together a plan, to a concern private providers would be eliminated, and to the cost being too great for the town to assume. At the hearing, commissioners listened to these concerns and responded to direct questions. Let me now provide additional perspective. Over the last five years, our entire board, technology committee and staff have been working on developing this community broadband network. We are probably the best educated small town board in the state as it pertains to broadband. Staff and commissioners have met on numerous occasions with expert consultants, providers, and attorneys who are specialists in this field at the state and federal levels. Our efforts have been constantly focused on following the somewhat limiting state laws currently in place. As the law requires, any reputable provider will be able to lease dark fiber space on this network and provide programming to their customers. The town’s primary interest is utilizing the network to create “smart grid” for managing utilities. This broadband initiative is not some vague notion that Highlands is unilaterally pursuing. In fact, small communities across the country are trying to generate similar initiatives to bring this 21st century technology to their communities. Highlands just so happens to be ahead of most small communities, especially in North Carolina. Our efforts are being viewed throughout the state as a model of how small, rural communities can access this essential technology/utility. Like all enterprises of this kind there are financial risks involved. The Local Government Commission will make a determination as to whether Highlands has the resources to assume such risks. This hearing was a required step in making the application to the LGC, nothing more. Let me remind folks that Wide Open Networks will be leasing fiber from the town. While Highlands will invest in this project, so will they. Wide Open will commit to building the underground portion of the network and will probably incur initial shortfalls. Company officials are in discussions with their investors about the lease agreement and the viability of operating the network. The risks will be shared. Income from the lease is intended to pay back the loan. One speaker stated I planned on raising taxes to build the network. That statement is not correct. In the early stage of planning this project several years ago, raising taxes was considered an option but was taken off the table. The current plan does not raise taxes and the loan would be repaid without a tax increase. The loan would be collateralized by the reserves and the strong financial position of the town. As Commissioner Patterson pointed out, this is not a short term investment measured in immediate profits and losses. It is a long term investment in the future economic vitality of this community. Some benefits are not immediately apparent, but Highlands will become a “Smart Grid City.” Our water, sewer and electric utilities will be managed by staff from the network. Customers will also have the ability to manage their home utilities, such as monitoring water consumption and electric use. Yes, there are risks involved, but in my opinion to do nothing poses even greater risks to the future of our community.