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One Initiative Seeks to Solve Two Connectivity Issues in Western NC

For the upcoming ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity forum on Feb. 10 in Raleigh, the Institute for Emerging Issues has chosen five community initiatives from throughout North Carolina that will share with our forum audience how they’re working to best leverage high speed broadband for economic growth and community improvement. Here, we profile the WestNGN Broadband Initiative.

When Leah Davis’s family first moved to the rural area of Shelton Laurel in western North Carolina, there was no internet to the house. For three years, she paid for a data plan from a cell phone carrier to work remotely at her job in higher education. She and her husband were also entrepreneurs, starting a farm and a coffee roasting business. They had to take family trips to the library for the kids to do homework and for Leah to attend virtual work meetings.

Finally, after an arduous process of laying fiber cable to their rural area, Davis and her family got access to broadband. Now, the struggle is keeping her kids off the internet when screen time is over for the day. But Davis knows they’re lucky to have access.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done out here,” said Davis. “We live really close to one of the main hubs… so we’re fortunate that way but there are still a lot of people up the road who are not that close.”

Western North Carolina has two very different concerns when it comes to broadband access. The metro areas want better, faster, more reliable connection. And the rural areas want connection, period. In 2016, a collaboration formed to address both these issues with one initiative: the West Next Generation Network, or WestNGN.

Six of the major metropolitan areas in four western NC counties joined forces with local universities and the Land of Sky Regional Council to create the West Next Generation Network, or WestNGN.

Six of the major metropolitan areas in four western NC counties joined forces with local universities and the Land of Sky Regional Council to recruit a service provider who could tackle the problem.

Sara Nichols, Regional Planner for Land of Sky Regional Council, said that everyone on the team has a different personal story to share about why the region needs to be connected. For Nichols, it boiled down to education.

“It really burned me up that I had kids in my community that couldn’t do their homework,” said Nichols. “Everything’s going digital. The state was talking about eliminating textbooks completely, and at the time, a good third of the population didn’t have internet, not because of an affordability issue, but because of access. It didn’t exist.”

There are also issues of job opportunity, health, and overall economic competitiveness to consider.

“We want to get good projects, we want our people to have better jobs, and we want people to be able to work from home,” said Nichols. “We know we have something really special to offer someone who would want to live in our community, and in order to [help communities grow] we absolutely need a better broadband that works.”

In Phase I of the initiative plan, the group selected a provider that began work deploying fiber. During Phase II, WestNGN conducted a widespread community survey of more than 8,500 respondents. County profiles were created based on the study to help the service provider and the initiative better understand the challenges and opportunities of the overall project.

WestNGN also works with communities to help them implement their own plans, such as providing hot spots in more public places as a temporary fix.

Nichols sees WestNGN’s participation in the ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity community cohort as an opportunity to learn from other groups doing similar work across the state.

“We recognize that we have a lot to learn,” said Nichols. “We have been watching Wilson for a long time, and so we’re excited to be around them […] the ability to get that kind of project done and off the ground is exactly the kind of thing we could learn from.”

Learn more about the WestNGN Broadband Initiative during the Institute for Emerging Issues ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity forum on February 10 in Raleigh.