By Beth Lawrence
Some good news and some bad news are in store for Jackson Countians coping with a lack of internet service.
The good news is, many residents without broadband internet or cable TV service will be getting access to both and more thanks to Charter Communications; the bad news is, completing the work to bring those services to Jackson County could take up to six years.
“I feel like given the challenges throughout Jackson County with our broadband accessibility, the gaps in coverage this is really a good start,” said Tiffany Henry, economic development director. “This is a really good start to the conversations (and) some really great efforts we’ve been working on in conjunction with Charter and all of our other internet service providers.”
Mike Tanck, Charter’s director of Government Affairs addressed the Board of Commissioners at its Oct. 12 work session informing them of Charter’s plans to expand its services to Jackson County. The expansion will cover more than broadband; Charter will offer cable, home phone and cell services to parts of the county once they begin expansion.
“Everything we are going to be offering here is going to be what we offer across the state,” Tanck said.
Charter plans to complete installations incrementally meeting benchmarks they have set along the way to the six-year buildout deadline.
“We’re going to come in and do some construction big time,” Tanck said. “To get broadband into rural areas the biggest hurdle is the economics of building it. Many times, the terrain is tough to get to. Many times, there are a lot of economic reasons why it doesn’t really work.”
Under the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Charter bid on census blocks or swaths of the country where FCC 477 reports and Census Bureau data showed no available internet access to at least 25/3 Mbps service or a rate of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. In North Carolina they won the rights to provide coverage to 125,000 locations, 90 percent of which are in rural areas. In Jackson that amounts to 11,128 locations, according to FCC data. Locations can be homes, businesses, churches, government buildings or any place that accesses the internet.
“Let me put a little asterisk behind that number,” Tanck said. “We know as we’ve already started to do some of the work, sometimes those numbers don’t always match up one for one. There are more RDOF locations in Jackson County than any other county across North Carolina that we are doing.”
Once complete, Charter will offer various plans with speeds ranging between 1 Gbps and 200 Mbps. For those in the county who face economic challenges, Charter offers a low cost program called Spectrum Internet Assist.
High speed internet service is accomplished through fiber optic cable which transfers data much faster than copper line.
The nationwide investment by Charter is estimated to be $5 billion which will be offset by $1.2 billion in matching funds from RDOF.
The company has already begun to survey the area to determine where they need to connect to existing power poles and ensure those poles are in good enough repair to host their equipment.
Coverage excludes areas where data shows internet access is already established including areas of Sylva, Webster, Cullowhee, Glenville and Cashiers.
However, that data can be misleading. Under current guidelines if one home in a neighborhood has access to internet, that entire area is counted as covered, Henry said.
Those numbers could change substantially if Jackson residents would participate in the N.C. Broadband Survey. Good participation would provide a more realistic assessment of Jackson’s broadband coverage.
If the only individual in a neighborhood with internet participates in the survey and their neighbors do not, that region will count as served.
The data from the state survey will map out areas of the county that are not properly served and allow providers to apply for North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grants to build or expand networks based on that.
Once established, Charter could also use N.C. Broadband Survey information to apply for GREAT grants.
While the expansion will eventually bring broadband service, it is less clear whether it will bring jobs to the area.
“We continue to plan for this project,” said Patti Michel senior regional communications director. “We’re hiring about 2,000 employees and contractors as part of our multiyear RDOF buildout across 24 states. We haven’t really broken that down by state or by permanent/temporary (positions), though a large amount of the work is project based as we construct our network in these unserved areas.”
To participate in the survey, visit: NCBroadband.gov/survey, or text “internet” to 919-750-0553. Households and businesses may participate.
To learn more about Charter’s expansion, visit: spectrumruralexpansion.com. Visitors can also check to see if their address is included in Charter’s expansion and sign up for email updates as the project progresses.