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Broadband and Connectivity around the Blue Ridge Parkway

Savannah Fowler

A Necessary Asset for Survival

by Savannah Fowler

Interviewees: Karen Searle, Kevin Brandt, Caleb Dispenza

Karen Searle, regional manager, for the non-profit, Eastern National, seeks to improve internet service along the Blue Ridge Parkway for hikers and campers safety in Asheville, N.C.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is nationally renowned for its protected nature, scenic vistas, and countless miles of land to traverse. The parkway’s unique environment entices both  Asheville locals and tourists from around the world. A beautiful destination nonetheless, the National Parkway presents itself as a somewhat off-grid travel option, differing vastly from the connected world around it.

The entrance of the National Park Service Center, where Karen Searle works as the regional manager for Eastern National, in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022. (Photo/Savannah Fowler)

The parkway’s beauty is at the forefront of its esteem. However, its connectivity and broadband is sparse. Lack of connectivity directly affects the national parkway’s economy and emergency management services.

Economics of Connectivity

            Karen Searle, a regional manager for Eastern National, began her work in park services 38 years ago.

The Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, at milepost 364.4, closed for the season before opening up for the summer, about thirty minutes from Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022. (Photo/Savannah Fowler)

A primary aspect of her job is finding ways to achieve connectivity in visitor centers along the parkway. Broadband is crucial for card sale transactions and without connection, the centers are unable to profit from sales. The revenue gleaned from these venues fund the parkway and its employees.

            “What is at stake is that we could lose our ability to process credit cards when our internet is down. Credit cards are 85-90% of our payment form, so that’s why there’s trouble,” Searle said.

            For the past two years, Searle has traveled solo to 15 visitor centers along the parkway, to check for connectivity strength and weaknesses.

            To aid with her search for broadband, Searle uses her own mobile device, an antenna, and the free app Open Signal. Open Signal is imperative, it runs speed tests, locates cell towers nearby, and compares performance of local networks.

“I have been using it when I set up antennas,” Searle said. “Most antennas I use have a 5 degree margin of error so it is precise.”

Even so, once connectivity options are found, dense building structures and strict park service conservation laws make it difficult to achieve running infrastructure.

“We are trying to get by with the smallest possible outside antenna, the least invasive,” Searle emphasized.

When possible, Searle prefers to use the Cradlepoint router and her computer equipment to test internet connection. Speedtest by Ookla then provides an analysis of the best internet access and performance metrics in the area. This combination has helped bring connection to tricky venues like the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center that runs without electricity.

Searle recently sought connectivity at the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, N.C.  She found a breakthrough with the cell service, T-Mobile.

 “I drove up there a few weeks ago and got like 40 mbs with T-Mobile, there were tears in my eyes because for so long we’ve needed better internet at the place and I was tapped out of alternatives. That was a big rescue that’s gonna make things better for the employees that work there and better for the customers,” Searle said.

Searle emphasized the hope every year is for coverage to improve with individual providers. Further, that adequate alternatives prove viable for broadband among park service centers.

Seeking Broadband Approval

            Kevin Brandt, project manager for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, works to complete natural restoration projects and achieve land donations to the National Park Service.

At present, Brandt’s primary focus is attaining broadband at the Water Rock Knob Visitor Center, Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, and Flattop Manor.

Brandt and Searle frequently work together in their search for broadband.

“Karen has found with T-Mobile and an amplifier you probably could get public WIFI at those locations. But it is preferable to have a point to point internet connection, it is stronger, and those signals can be transmitted miles. But it is more difficult because it involves larger antennas and is harder to get approval from park service,” Brandt emphasized.

“Between the challenges of working with technology and the challenges of getting the park service to agree on exterior features like the dishes we haven’t succeeded at those three locations but we have not yet given up,” Brandt said.

Often, the biggest impediment to broadband installations are the visual concerns.  

Satellites, dishes, antennas, and amplifiers have to pass approval by strict National Park Service Law. Donations from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation can help fund these connectivity options, but they must be approved first.

Fiber optics was funded by donors and installed at the Doughton Park Visitor Center; it is now the most connected center on the parkway. This situation is ideal, but often not possible.

Broadband helps bring revenue to park visitor centers and also provides protection in dire situations, “It’s also good from a public safety standpoint to have the WIFI available, because if somebody is having an emergency and needs to get a hold of the park service or law enforcement, there’s not much cell signal in those locations, there is a life and death value to having that as a service,” Brandt said.

Connection Saves Lives

            Caleb Dispenza, the Madison County Emergency Services Director, works in telecommunication, 911 and administrative calls, dispatching law enforcement, fire department services, emergency management, EMS, and forest service.    

“Especially in the 911 field you want to be able to call out on your cell phone, you’ve got hikers and people in the river, there are some areas where they might not be able to get out or we might not be able to get a good connection to them, ” Dispenza said.

Rural Madison County has areas where there is no cell phone connection. Dispenza emphasized a lack of redundancy and dual routing in the county. If a fiber line is cut, it could take out a whole section of data that can be used for 911 dispatching, residential phone lines, and commercial services.

In dire situations, Dispenza has used hotspots and WIFI boosters to bridge the connectivity gap. However, he emphasized that they are not optimal and can be spotty. If a life is in danger, it is preferable to have reliable connectivity that can reach people in remote locations.

Frontier is the main phone provider in the county. Rural counties are often only served by one provider, which is problematic because there is no competition. Emergency Management Services get DSL through Frontier or a satellite, but nothing large scale. Starlink Internet is available as well and can be used in place of fiber or DSL.

Dispenza emphasized that in recent years, broadband options have improved some, but are not what they need to be because the county is so rural. There are still too many gaps in service and broadband.

“The main thing here is about the cellphone towers, we don’t have a lot of towers in the mountainous areas, there is a need for more wireless internet. So many things run off your cell phone, so having a good line of connectivity in place where other devices can connect to that cellular network, really improves it beyond, a multiplier for all sorts of communication channels,” Dispenza emphasized.

            Broadband and the connectivity it provides is crucial for both personal survival and for the success of park centers along the parkway. Without connectivity, park service centers cannot receive the revenue they need to stay open and fund both the parkway and its employees. For emergency management services, connection is imperative to saving lives and reaching those in need of rescue. As nationally renowned as the parkway is, a distinct focus on broadband, connectivity, and improving infrastructure is critical for its own business survival and the survival of the people who visit it.