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Broadband Internet Service Expanding in Avery County Through LightLeap Program

By Tim Gardner

Avery County is getting Broadband Internet Service for many parts of its 247-square mile radius and many of its 17,797 residents with ongoing efforts to obtain the service for all parts and residents of the county.

An agreement was made September 7 between the Avery County Chamber of Commerce and North Carolina Wireless of Hickory that the latter will perform work pursuant to Broadband Internet Service being installed.

Contractual obligations and related work on the installation process have been ongoing since.

Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. informed the Avery Board of Commissioners about a Broadband Internet Service Grant being awarded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to the Avery Chamber of Commerce at the Board’s February 2018 meeting.

Chamber of Executive Director Executive Director Melynda Pepple was assisted by the Avery County Manager’s Office and the staff of The High Country Council of Governments in developing the grant request to the ARC, which lists it mission as to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia.

The grant provides for $100,000.00 in matching funds for non-construction aspects of the project, including $3,000.00 in grant administration funds. NCW was selected as the entity to receive grant funds to implement the project, which has a total cost of $200,000.00, consisting of grant funds and like kind contributions by NCW. The agreement states that the maximum amount paid to NCW will be $97,000.00.

The grant contract’s ending date is June 30, 2019.

The grant was awarded with further consideration of serving low-density and low-income areas of the county. Pepple and the Avery Broadband Committee received early guidance from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) to assist in identifying the unserved and underserved areas.

After approval of the grant, a competitive process was utilized to select an Internet Service Provider to partner with the Chamber of Commerce to implement the project. All methods of delivery of broadband services were considered (coax, fiber, wireless, etc).

It was determined that Fixed Wireless was the most cost-effective method and provided the most coverage for the unserved homes in Avery County. “The Broadband Committee determined that North Carolina Wireless (NCW) with their branded ‘LightLeap’ service offered the most complete and comprehensive plan for delivering the project” stated Pepple.

NCW President Bill Shillito stated: “We are proud and humbled to accept this award of funds; proud that the Avery Broadband Committee recognized the value that we bring to the project and humbled by the fact that the Broadband Committee identified us as offering the best and most effective approach to meet the grant’s aims. We will work hard to fulfill the aims of the grant. We are ably assisted by our local partner, Doug Gragg, owner of Highland Electronics (Radio Shack), who serves as our sales and service team for Avery County. They are located at 520 Pineola St, Newland, NC 28657 and can be reached at (828) 733-5718. Mr. Gragg continues to go above and beyond his role in assisting NCW with identifying the best methods to deploy our unique capability in all parts of Avery County.”

In response to the project goals, documented demand, and existing tower sites, NCW identified several areas of early focus to expand service to. Those areas include the Jonas Ridge/Pineola and the Linville Falls/Altamont areas as best early focus areas. “Now that the grant is awarded, our staff can and will complete the timelines and progress goals toward accomplishing the aims of the grant,” stated Josh Strickland, another NCW Executive.

LightLeap provides an Internet connection via a wireless receiver and/or antenna system.  An antenna is installed on a building’s roof or exterior wall with an attached radio receiver/transmitter. This antenna is pointed at a nearby Access Point tower, and must have a clear or near line‐of‐site (no thick forests, buildings, or hills blocking the path).  When information is sent and received over the Internet, it goes over the wireless link from a receiver/antenna to Light Leap’s access points.  From there that information travels over its “backhaul,” which is a point-to-point wireless link to its Network Operations Center hooked directly to the Internet.  LightLeap service has very low “latency” (or delay) compared to satellite Internet, where signals must travel thousands of miles into space.  LightLeap Tier 1/2 services are well suited for digital phone (also known as Voice over Internet Protocol/VoIP) and other uses such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), streaming or gaming.

LightLeap High-Speed Internet are all tower-based terrestrial wireless over relatively short distances and does not use any satellite links in the delivery of service and the latency on its network is very similar to Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and Cable Modem systems.

The first criteria for installation of the system is eligible communities will need to provide LightLeap High-Speed Internet with a minimum of 10 subscribers within a three-mile radius of each base station. 

Typical LightLeap Internet customers will experience similar, and perhaps, faster speeds and reliability that customers would expect with any Broadband Internet provider.  

LightLeap officials contend it’s a misconception that its service falls under the general term of “wireless” which often is thought of as WiFi or 3G Mobile Based services.  The connection quality provided is Wireless to the premise, but it does not fall under the typical definition of what vendors think of as “Wireless” technologies.

The various programs offered to LightLeap customers currently run from $39.95 to $109.95 monthly. For more details about the program, log onto lightleap.net . Anyone interested may complete a service form request at the website to assist NCW in determining demand for expansion in Avery County or contact Doug Gragg at the Newland Radio Shack.

Gragg noted that many already have signed up for ‘LightLeap’ and he anticipates many more doing so.

Pepple further stated “Many hours of work by a large number of players went into submitting the request to the ARC and selecting an ISP (Internet Service Provider) partner. I wish to thank the vision of the Avery County Commissioners and the Manager’s Office for their support toward this effort. I also thank the Appalachian Regional Commission for seeing the need and providing the funding for this project. The High Country Council of Governments staff provided invaluable guidance and support through this entire process. We look forward to working with NCW to expand broadband in Avery County.”

Avery County officials also are hoping to get some Broadband Internet Service funding and other assistance though a new Federal grant.

This week, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its partnership with Communities to Bring High-Speed Broadband e-Connectivity Infrastructure to Rural Areas.

Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said the USDA is investing in infrastructure projects in a dozen states (PDF, 132 KB) to improve e-Connectivity in rural communities.

“In the modern economy, rural broadband is a lifeline to quality of life and economic opportunity,” Hazlett stated. “With that impact, USDA is fiercely committed under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on expanding access to e-Connectivity in rural America.”

According to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households who lack reliable, affordable, high-speed internet are in rural areas. USDA’s investments in broadband infrastructure are helping transform rural America, providing innovation and technology to increase economic competitiveness and opportunities.

USDA is investing $91 million through the Telecommunications Programs. The 19 projects will benefit more than 27,000 businesses and households in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia.

Examples of the projects in which USDA is investing follows:

The Arkansas Rural Internet Company is receiving a $19.9 million loan to deploy a fiber broadband system to more than 5,000 subscribers in Dallas, Calhoun and Ouchita counties in rural southern Arkansas. Approximately 25,000 people in the company’s service territory can benefit from broadband access.

In New Mexico, the Tularosa Basin Telephone Company Inc. will use an $11.8 million loan to improve telecommunications for nearly 10,000 customers in the Carrizozo, Cloudcroft and Tularosa exchanges. Tularosa will build 176 miles of fiber-optic facilities, construct new fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) facilities, and upgrade digital subscriber line (DSL) and FTTP electronics. The improvements will enhance the company’s services and provide subscribers voice and higher broadband speeds.

The Choctaw Nation is receiving a $2.9 million grant to construct a hybrid fiber and fixed wireless system on unserved portions of Le Flore County, Oklahoma. This project will increase access to economic development, health care, educational and public safety opportunities for 300 households and 15 businesses. It will include a community center in the Hodgen School where the public can access computer terminals and WiFi service free of charge.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas.

Avery County Commission chairperson Martha Hicks vowed county officials will continue to aggressively pursue having Internet Broadband Service for the entire county.  “We will keep working hard for it and not give up until we get it across the county,” she declared.

Eric Boyette, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (DIT) and State Chief Information Officer, announced this week the launch of the state’s new Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant Program.

The GREAT Grant Program is a $10 million funding entity authorized by the North Carolina General Assembly and administered by NC DIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office. The program allows internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives to compete for funding to lower financial barriers that prevent broadband expansion in rural communities.

The GREAT Grant Program was established by Session Law 2018-5. Eligible areas are census blocks or portions of census blocks in Tier One counties that lack access to a service providing a minimum of 10 Megabits per second download and 1 Megabit per second upload speeds. The state classifies the 40 most economically distressed counties in the state as Tier 1 counties.

However, Avery is designated as a Tier 2 county by the state, making it ineligible to receive funding though the GREAT Grant Program.  

The North Carolina Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic well-being and assigns each a Tier designation. This Tier system is incorporated into various state programs to encourage economic activity in the less prosperous areas of the state.

The 40 most distressed counties are designated as Tier 1, the next 40 as Tier 2 and the 20 least distressed as Tier 3.

County Tiers are calculated using four factors: average unemployment rate; median household income: percentage growth in population: and adjusted property tax base per capita.

The law governing County Tier status also further specifies automatic qualifying criteria for Tier 1 and Tier 2 status: Tier 1 Automatic Qualifiers include: a county must be Tier 1 for at least two consecutive years; a county with less than 12,000 people; and a county with a population less than 50,000 people that also has a poverty rate of 19 percent or greater. A Tier 2 Automatic Qualifier is a county with a population less than 50,000 people.