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Asheville's online superhighway keeps widening



7/12/2011 - Asheville's online superhighway keeps widening
by Jason Sandford

Infrastructure is key to a growing area...and Western North Carolina is no exception!  Read the article below to find out how both private and public organizations are working to make the Asheville area a hub for business - big and small!


                ASHEVILLE -- The city's information superhighway continues to widen in several significant ways. Both private companies and nonprofit organizations are working to improve the infrastructure that brings high-speed Internet access to Western North Carolina.

 While it's difficult to assess exactly how broadband capability in the city and WNC compares to other cities and regions its size, significant advancements are under way in several areas: 

o 25 miles of new fiber is being installed around Asheville, funded by part of $7 billion earmarked for broadband in the 2009 federal stimulus package.

o Private companies continue to invest in service improvements to customers.

o Nonprofit entities are forging ahead with their own infrastructure projects. Most notably, the Mountain Area Information Network was recently awarded an FCC license to experiment with unused portions of the TV broadcasting spectrum for high-speed Internet access in the

Burton Street community.

"Without that (Internet) infrastructure, this community will fall significantly behind," said Hunter Goosman, general manager of ERC Broadband. The nonprofit works to expand technology infrastructure in WNC and upstate South Carolina.

"It's not just in terms of employment," Goosman said. "It's in terms of anyone trying to support educating their children, or job re-training, and it ties into health care."

The infrastructure improvements are proceeding despite Asheville missing out earlier this year on Internet search engine giant Google's first fiber network project, which promised up to a $500 million investment to offer super-fast broadband to one community.

The winner, named in March, was Kansas City, Kan., which will get a network offering Internet speeds 100 times faster than the broadband speeds that phone and cable companies offer. Asheville was one of more than 1,000 communities that applied. Google has said it will name other communities for similar projects.

Congress last year underscored the importance of Internet access to the economy in a report called the National Broadband Plan. The blueprint aims to meet a federal government mandate that all Americans have access to broadband capability.

"Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life," the plan states.

It's difficult to assess how broadband availability in Asheville compares with other cities its size, Goosman said.

"There's no empirical data I'm aware of that can assess that, because national carriers have their services and offerings online and marketed, but they don't disclose the breadth of that," Goosman said.

"That's often the case with broadband mapping -- they just paint with a broad brush, and that creates a challenge," he said.

The competitive market drives advancements, Goosman said, "and Asheville does have more options than other cities around Western North Carolina," he said. The fiber being built right now will allow more carriers to come to Asheville, and that competition will be good for "middle mile" Internet access.

Rural areas lag

A major hurdle remains extending fiber to rural areas, such as the mountainous terrain west of Asheville. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission issued an update to a 2009 report on efforts to bring broadband to rural America.

The report concludes that "actions to expand broadband deployment and use are nascent" in rural areas, and adds that the best data available indicate that more than 20 million Americans lack access to robust broadband.

In a study of rural broadband availability, the Kentucky-based nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies last month said that North Carolina is behind when it comes to broadband.

The lag could leave rural Tar Heel communities "economically crippled," the report said, noting that 57 percent of households in the state have Internet speeds below minimum national standards. The FCC set that standard at 4 megabits per second download time and 1 megabit per second upload time.

The FCC's standard for 2015 is 50 mbps download and 20 mbps upload. The U.S. is ranked 15th behind other industrialized countries in high speed Internet adoption and 25th in Internet speeds.

AT&T announced last month that it would expand high speed Internet access to residents in Leicester.

The decision came after the company received a request from a resident who contacted e-NC Authority, an organization established by the N.C. General Assembly in 2000 to work with service providers to serve rural areas.

Charter Communications also recently announced a new option for Internet users in Asheville that will deliver speeds up to 60 mbps. Service for commercial customers now allows Internet speeds of up to 100 mbps, said Kristina Hill, a Charter spokeswoman.

"These are the types of services that not only support business growth and development in the area, but add to the overall quality of life for residents," Hill said.

Nonprofit boosters

Wally Bowen, a national expert on rural broadband with the Mountain Area Information Network, said that high-speed Internet capabilities are a step ahead in Asheville because of the work being done outside the realm of private companies.

"So far, for communities trying to self-provision, the nonprofit route is the only route," Bowen said. "We're already well underway in building our own network."

Because of that work, "we'll see innovators and entrepreneurs increasingly d rawn to this area," Bowen said.

MAIN was recently one of a select group of organizations across the U.S. to be awarded an FCC license to test the use of so-called "white spaces" to deliver high-speed Internet access.

White spaces are unused parts of the TV spectrum that the FCC freed up to be used. The spectrum is attractive for use because it enables signals to travel long distances and penetrate buildings.

Bowen said MAIN will use the technology to connect to the Burton Street Community Center in the Burton Street community of West Asheville.

The community center is already a wireless hot spot, but the white spaces technology "will greatly increase Internet speed and capacity to the neighborhood," he said.

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