FLAT ROCK – Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo called the announcement Tuesday, Jan. 22, of federal assistance to bring affordable high-speed Internet access to rural Western North Carolina potentially the most significant economic development in the history of the mountain region.
Bardo, chairman of the Education and Research Consortium of the Western Carolinas, served as moderator for a press conference held by U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College to announce $4.3 million in initial federal funding for the project, with a total of $15 million possible by the year’s end. “The history of economic development in the United States is usually tied to technology and shifts in technology – the railroad, the interstate, the airport. But, if we’re going to succeed in the 21st century as a region, it’s important that we be immediately available to those in the rest of the world through electronic communications,” Bardo said.
“Today, Congressman Taylor’s announcement allows this region to leap forward to become competitive in the world economy,” he said. “It will make it possible for us to enjoy the absolutely wonderful quality of life we have in this area, to take advantage of the great work ethic of the mountain people and to continue to improve the quality of education. We will be able to combine those things with new capital formation and infrastructure that will allow this region to prosper as it never has in the last two centuries.”
The project initially calls for nearly 840 miles of existing and newly constructed fiber optic cable, with state-of-the-art electronic equipment enabling simultaneous transmission of voice, data and video signals, with virtually unlimited bandwidth capacity. Those high-capacity pipelines will advance several other initiatives under way at Western, Bardo said, includingthe Adventure of the American Mind program to train teachers in using the digitized resources of the Library of Congress, and a new partnership with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in “ultra-high technologies” that is expected to jump-start efforts to bring emerging high-tech industries to WNC.
The plan outlined by Taylor would enable rural, relatively sparsely populated WNC and Upstate South Carolina – an area with a population of about 1.5 million people – to pool local demand for access to high-speed Internet connections called “broadband.” Combining demand from the region’s schools, libraries, colleges and universities, health care providers, and private business sector would result in a much lower cost for the type of telecommunications services necessary in today’s information age, Taylor said.
“Western North Carolinians pay up to 10 times more than their urban counterparts for high-speed Internet access. The service that we receive is intermittent at best, with poor quality of service. You can’t build a business or a bank or any kind of medical practice around poor infrastructure,” said Jack Cecil, vice chairman of The University of North Carolina Board of Governors. “We wanted to find the optimum strategy to lower the cost and increase the access for the region.”
Collaboration across state lines between public, private and non-profit concerns to bring broadband access to the rural western Carolinas will enable the region to address what Cecil called “the five tenets of community development” – education, health care, economic development, arts and culture, and quality of life and environment.
A non-profit spin-off of the Education and Research Consortium will serve as owner of the fiber optics infrastructure, said Taylor, who established the ERC in 1997 to help WNC find ways to participate in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. Originally composed of leaders of WCU, and Brevard, Mars Hill and Montreat colleges, the consortium now counts the University of North Carolina at Asheville, area community colleges, and Furman University in South Carolina as affiliate members.