By Beth Lawrence
Several areas of Jackson County without internet access could have broadband internet before the year is done.
SkyFi broadband internet provider received approval in 2019 for a grant to expand service to four areas of the county.
“There were some surveys made in Jackson County, and there were some identified areas that had little to no internet,” SkyFi owner Travis Lewis said. “The grant gave us targeted areas that we had to concentrate on to improve internet in those areas. Those areas included the head of Blanton Branch, the Roscoe Lewis Road area, and it included the bottom of Caney Fork up into the Moody Bridge area.”
The company was awarded a $223,645 Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant from the N.C. Department of Information Technology in July. In order to qualify, they had to match the grant at just more than 50 percent with corporate funds. SkyFi was required to put up $120,424. The company also had to ensure that it would be able to provide service to at least 340 homes.
“The thing about these towers is, not only are they going to serve the targeted area, they’re going to serve outlying areas as well,” Lewis said. “Anybody that can actually see, or has a visual of the Wolf Knob, the Buck Knob or Skinner Tower can get service.”
The money was not released to SkyFi all at once. The company was required to wait until July to begin work and had to fund the initial phase of the project itself. If work was started before July, they would not be reimbursed.
“We have to spend the money first, turn (documentation) in to the state of North Carolina and get a reimbursement,” Lewis said. “Doing the projects that we’ve done now, we’ve already spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $140,000 of the grant. So we’re waiting on reimbursement to recoup that to go again.”
Work has begun on the towers. Two are complete. The Wolf Knob tower overlooking Roscoe Lewis and East Fork roads is operational and broadcasting signal. It should be ready to provide service to homes soon, Lewis said.
The Buck Knob tower overlooking Blanton Branch is complete but not operational.
When they have been compensated by the state, SkyFi will begin work on the Skinner property tower.
The project has seen delays due to inclement weather.
“Where the towers are located, it’s almost impossible, we can make it up there if we needed to do a quick repair, but to haul our equipment in to build it, (rain) makes it almost impossible to get to these towers in wet weather,” Lewis said.
Once the weather is warmer and drier, work on the towers can continue in earnest. If all goes well, the project could be completed by the end of summer.
The addition of the towers will give SkyFi the ability to provide service to anyone with a direct line of sight to them.
The company already has hundreds of applications from residents hoping to get internet service.
Anyone who has already requested service does not need to apply again, Lewis said.
The addition of internet capability to these areas is more than an amenity for entertainment. It has the potential to benefit the county in a number of ways.
“Access to broadband isn’t simply a luxury or convenience as perhaps once thought of,” said Rich Price, Jackson County economic development director. “It has now become a necessity that has significant negative implications when unavailable.”
The first benefit is its economic impact.
Internet access makes an area more attractive to potential home buyers and residential and commercial developers.
That “leads to a stronger and more sustainable local economy and diversified workforce,” Price said.
The availability of high-speed internet also stimulates business, both new and existing because it creates an outlet for owners to open their business to online sales.
It also influences tourism. Visitors are sometimes reluctant to stay in areas with limited or no high-speed internet or cellular communication, Price said.
Internet access impacts education as well.
“It closes the education gap by allowing anyone of any age who needs access to educational materials or information the ability to do so from their home,” he said.
Broadband can also have a positive effect on healthcare outcomes.
“(It) provides innovative health care access that can maximize health and wellness for certain patients who may otherwise be challenged to seek medical assistance,” Price said.