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Matthew Brendel, a technician for N.C. Wireless, works to set up a dish that will send a signal from a fiber-optic cable at Avery Middle School to a receiver on Hawshaw Tower, which will then spread high-speed Internet access out in a 10-mile radius, though topography and tree cover will limit who can access the signal.
Photo by Matthew Hundley

Originally published: 2013-02-14 15:16:23
Last modified: 2013-02-14 15:16:23

Web of economic, educational progress

Matthew Hundley / (

Avery County’s Teacher of the Year, Hank Hardin, spoke at the regular meeting of Avery County Board of Commissioners on Monday, Feb. 4, to encourage the commissioners to proceed with economic development efforts, especially as they pertain to expanding high-speed Internet access to all corners of the county.
Hardin teaches various technology-oriented classes at ACHS, instructing students in the use of a wide array of instruments and machines that require knowledge of engineering, physics and advanced math.
Hardin emphasized the need for Internet access as especially important to the county’s youth, which Hardin said is integral in their education and their ability to make full use of the newly implemented one-to-one initiative, which placed either an iPad or MacBook Air in the hands of every ACS student.
“The purchase of the MacBooks and the iPads have been a wonderful resource for my students,” Hardin said. “The students have been using the MacBooks in a correct manner, enhancing their educational opportunities. I am beginning to see a much better technological skill being performed by the students due to your investment. This will pay big dividends in the future.”
Hardin noted, however, that the technological future of the students is still at risk while Internet access remains unreliable or absent in parts of the county.
“I implore you, stay on course,” Hardin said. “Help provide high-speed Internet access to every home in Avery County. This has got to be the ultimate goal.”
According to Hardin, Internet access has become a basic service that both Avery students and potential homebuyers should be able to expect, like telephone service or electricity.
“This Internet access problem is exactly like the historical problem we had in Avery County with power distribution,” Hardin said. “In today’s world, it is absolutely, without a doubt, necessary for out citizens to have Internet access. We have got to provide this basic service, just like we needed to provide electricity.”
Hardin pointed out that large corporations failed to bring power into the mountains, forcing local people to create a cooperative to provide power. Hardin pointed to Mayland Community College as an opportunity to build the workforce that can help put the systems in place to bring Internet access to everyone in the county.
“The lives of Avery County citizens will be better,” Hardin said. “To me, as a teacher of Avery County children for the past 25 years, our graduates might, with this access, have the opportunity to start small businesses and work from their own homes.”
Hardin acknowledged the extensive efforts the county has already taken to bring about improved Internet access – including investment in mapping studies and encouraging companies to move into the area – and charged them with continuing to invest in the process, much of which has been coordinated through Avery County Economic Development.
To learn more about the state of Internet access in Avery County and the efforts being made to expand it, The Avery Journal-Times turned to Economic Development Director Bret Gardella, who explained that technicians are in the process of implementing the initial stages of a new Internet service option that could provide access for some parts of the notoriously underserved southern end of Avery County.
N.C. Wireless will provide access that will be sent out wirelessly from Hawshaw Tower, which will, in turn, receive its signal from a fiber-optic signal currently available at Avery Middle School. The fiber-optic cable is still inactive, but could become active soon.
Like satellite Internet services, a receiving dish will be required to access the signal. Unlike satellite Internet, however, the signal will come from Hawshaw, rather than from a low-orbit satellite, providing a much stronger signal for those who can access it.
The downside of using the cell tower is that topography and tree cover can be disruptive, preventing signal for those who do not have line-of-sight to the tower.
When the service becomes active – possibly as soon as summer – the service will likely be limited to those with direct line of site to Hawshaw Tower. At that point, however, N.C. Wireless will work with landowners to establish repeating towers that will make the signal available to more and more individuals as the network is improved.
While this is not a solution that will bring access to every Avery citizen, it is certainly another step toward to bringing access to underserved middle and southern areas of Avery County.
“There is unknown there. The range from Hawshaw is roughly 10 miles, but because of our topography it is hard to say. Mountains and trees can block the signal,” Gardella said, noting that a broader, but less powerful signal will also be available to provide access for those without a direct view of Hawshaw Mountain.
According to Joshua Strickland of N.C. Wireless, the signal will be received directly through a receiver in the home. The access will be at higher speeds than satellite Internet, and much faster than cellular 3G service.
“The way that it works is that we have a professional installer come out to the individual’s home after they have been pre-approved,” Strickland said, explaining that the approval will be based on the strength of signal available at the location. “We install a receiver, normally at the roofline level of the home.”
Strickland also said that one of the most unpopular aspects of satellite or cellular Internet services, the monthly or daily data limit, will not be in place for N.C. Wireless’ service.
Strickland was quick to point out that when the service first goes live, the service area may be small, due to the topography and tree cover, but will expand slowly. So, while the service could become active in the next several months, depending on when the fiber-optic cable is restored in its path through Mitchell County, access will not be widespread immediately. In fact, the service will have to go through a beta testing phase before the company begins to sell access.
Strickland also noted that N.C. Wireless would almost certainly not have ventured to provide its LightLeap service to Avery County were it not for the efforts of Gardella and the access that having a county employee committed to economic development gives a company to county facilities like AMS and Hawshaw tower.
“I think it is important for people to know, that we find that in communities, broadband access really changes a lot in the learning potential for children and the ability of people to take jobs that telecommute that they wouldn’t normally have access to,” Strickland said. “We think what we do really is a good thing for communities ... and we are happy to be able to work with Avery County in a kind of informal partnership to make it happen.”