Written by Bibeka Shrestha
Smoky Mountain News
Western Carolina might never be the next Silicon Valley, but experts say improving Internet access could help kick-start the region’s economy.
David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, said with the manufacturing sector mostly on its way out in WNC, it’s time to look to a new kind of model for economic development.
“The days of hoping for a factory to come to town, that’s probably not going to happen in the foreseeable future,” said Hubbs. Nurturing a tech-friendly environment would level the competitive playing field and allow students to stay in the area after they graduate, however.
“We’re helping to create an opportunity for people who grow up here,” Hubbs said.
Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat Communications, a Sylva-based telecom company, provides services to certain companies that would not have stuck around WNC without access to quality Internet service. The Internet can be an important tool in recruiting new businesses and promoting economic development, Kevlin said.
“Because of the way the land is around here, you’re not going to bring in a Dell Computer,” said Kevlin. “But you can bring in the smaller companies.”
For many companies, the Internet is not a luxury but a real need.
“Internet connectivity is as basic as water, sewage and infrastructure,” said Pam Lewis, senior vice president of entrepreneurial development at AdvantageWest, a regional economic development arm.
Preparing for 2013
Earlier this year, the Nantahala Gorge was named as the site for the 2013 Freestyle World Championships in kayaking.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is equipped with high-speed Internet from BalsamWest FiberNET, but only at its headquarters. Fiber is not an option at branch offices, where Internet is both expensive and unreliable, according to Kevin Sisson, Chief Information Officer at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
“If it rains, it’ll go down, or if it’s foggy, it’ll go down,” said Sisson. “It really hampers the ability of these branch offices to connect to our reservation system.”
Sisson and others in the rafting community are worried about the Gorge’s preparedness for the kayaking championships. Lack of widespread Internet access might make it difficult or impossible to upload event photos or videos.
“We’re going to have an international community arrive here,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures. “Journalists, competitors, families that get here and have no high-speed wireless.”
The Internet is a necessity even during the regular tourist season. Kastorff says that about 10 percent of tourists anticipate working during their vacation. They sometimes rule out a travel destination if Internet connections are spotty.
The web is not just useful for browsing endlessly on YouTube or Googling for directions.
With the Internet increasingly being used to educate, children in WNC will need better Internet access at home as well as school.
John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville, said students in other regions are receiving laptops as early as the ninth grade. They complete assignments requiring Internet connections and interact with teachers via email.
“If a kid’s got dial-up, he or she can’t compete with kids from more populous areas of the state,” said Howell.
Data-intensive entities, like hospitals and Internet-based companies, also need the Internet to simply operate. The hospital group, MedWest, processes millions of transactions every month. On top of billing and registration data, hospitals need high-speed capacity for sending X-rays, MRIs and detailed medical records to doctors.
Since the creation of MedWest in January, administrators have also discovered a need for video conferencing to avoid excessive travel.
Kevlin said that the Internet is immensely useful for cutting down on pollution.
“If we’re going to be a greener society, more people are going to be working from home,” said Kevlin. “They need the tools necessary to do that, and broadband Internet is part of that.”