Officials Say They Are Working To Improve Broadband – Transylvania County, NC
Last updated 8/5/2020 at 4:16pm
In response to an Opinion of the Readers, county officials said they have been working hard to improve broadband service in the county.
In late July, an Opinion of the Readers letter from a local couple claimed they have received inferior service from Comporium and “endure all this because we understand our county commissioners have awarded Comporium an exclusive, monopolistic contract for Transylvania County” and that “Comporium’s exclusivity is a result of their inability to find ways for a full and open business solution to this issue.”
She noted that in decades past, local governments agreed to franchise arrangements with utility providers, but those arrangements regarding phone services ended in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In 2005, the state General Assembly dissolved those franchise agreements for cable and internet services.
“In theory, competition has existed since that time,” said Lemel.
However, Lemel noted that since Citizens Telephone and Sylvan Valley CATV were sold to Comporium in 2008, “Comporium owns the largest amount of existing infrastructure to provide phone/cable and internet service in the county.”
“Just as we are challenged in bringing broadband into our community, very few providers are willing to make the investment needed to build the infrastructure to support a competitive phone or cable company,” she said. “County governments are legally prohibited by the legislature from building infrastructure for utilities. This adds to the challenge of attracting service providers.”
Lemel said that both she and Commission Chair Mike Hawkins participate on the state level with groups seeking to pass legislation to allow counties to invest in infrastructure with the goal of having more competitive services.
Hawkins said the legislature prevented localities from providing infrastructure when it passed its Growing Rural Economies with Access to Broadband Technology (GREAT) grant program in 2018. It is designed to expand broadband service to rural North Carolina by providing grants to private companies to expand service.
But Hawkins said that when the act was first passed, it was just for Tier 1 counties, which are the most economically distressed counties in the state.
He said the amount initially funded – $10 million – was “ridiculously low.”
For fiscal year 2020, the state increased the funding to $15 million and Tier 2 counties, such as Transylvania, can apply.
“But that doesn't change the point that it’s a pittance and not something that's seriously intended to address the rural broadband problem,” said Hawkins. “It's just really frustrating.”
Hawkins also said the state’s target rate of 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload is far from adequate. He said the rate “encouraged” by the state of 25Mbps download and /3Mbps upload is “of limited value in the current world.”
“Broadband deficiencies in rural North Carolina are scandalous,” said Hawkins. “Broadband should be the Rural Electrification Project of the 21st Century but federal and state legislators are unwilling to take steps to make a real difference.
“I had a series of meetings with Senator Tillis’ senior staff people about this last year and in the end they made it clear they would never make broad public investment in rural broadband. They believe the market will solve the problem, which is ludicrous in rural areas.
“So, we get things like GREAT, so politicians can say they are addressing the problem. But they aren’t!”
County Manager Jaime Laughter said the county has been working on broadband efforts within the very limited abilities state statutes give counties. Those efforts include:
•Providing free Wi-Fi at nine community centers
•Working with WEST NGN through Land of Sky on regional broadband opportunities.
The county is currently a part of an ARC Grant to solicit better service for the Balsam Grove Community Center.
Through this effort, the county also has worked to show the speeds and affordability needs communities have to companies.
•The county is advocating through the North Carolina County Commissioner Association at the state level for better tools for broadband access. Both funding for broadband initiatives and state law changes to empower communities to introduce competition and expand access are at the top of the association’s legislative goals.
“While there are very clear limits on the legal role of the county, we are doing what we can, including working with Comporium, to communicate issues and help identify funding strategies they may be able to access through federal and state grant programs to address problems,” said Laughter. “We have also met with other interested companies, including Sky Runner, who has increased their presence locally over the last several years, and with providers who have expressed interest, but have not chosen at this time to invest in infrastructure here.”