By Nathan Ham
The Watauga County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to approve a $7 million project to extend fiber-optic high-speed internet access to parts of the county that have not had that option before.
The lack of high-speed internet access in the High Country has been one of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered, especially with lots of folks moving to the area and finding out that large, rural parts of the county do not have access to high-speed internet.
The cost of the project will be covered from the nearly $11 million that the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP).
The current project would be broken down into four phases and be built over 2.5 years. Initially, the plan calls for about 75 miles of trunk fiber to be built by Blue Ridge Energy and SkyLine/SkyBest to provide 78 miles of distribution fiber for approximately 1,565 homes to access. Trunk fiber is fiber that is capable of connecting multiple users (businesses, households, etc) without having to use individual cables for each user to connect to. This fiber is connected by Blue Ridge Energy and it allows for SkyLine/SkyBest to then use the fiber to provide high-speed internet.
The four phases include:
Phase 1 – Triplett/Powder Horn – would provide the largest amount of access to homes
(503) and territory. 29 miles of fiber built.
Phase 2 – Wildcat/Stoney Fork – access for 310 homes. 20 miles of fiber built.
Phase 3 – Blackberry/Sampson – access for 252 homes. 16 miles of fiber built.
Phase 4 – Howard’s Creek/Ray Brown/Raven Rock – access for 500 homes. 10 miles
of fiber built.
According to Blue Ridge Energy, the fiber would have to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway in four different locations (Holloway Mountain Road, Aho Road, Blackberry Road and Elk Creek Road).
SkyLine/SkyBest has over 26,000 internet customers in a five-county area and has made steady improvements in providing high-speed internet access to underserved parts of Ashe, Watauga, Alleghany, and Avery counties in North Carolina and Johnson County in Tennessee. They have invested $200 million in their network with more than 2,500 miles of fiber in service.
Once the project is completed, it will include 78 miles of new fiber construction, four remote equipment buildings, three remote electronic shelves, eight field cabinets and 939 project service drops and installations.