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Online Orchards

Bringing broadband to Henderson County’s apple farmers

by UNCA Mass Communication Student Julia Murphy
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Apple trees in blossom at Sky Top Orchard in Zirconia, North Carolina. April 16, 2022. (Photo/Julia Murphy)

David Butler and his wife Lindsey planted the first trees at Sky Top Orchard in 1967. Since then, it’s grown to be one of the most popular orchards for visitors and residents alike in Henderson County.

“We opened as a U-Pick in 1980 and it’s become quite a popular place for people to come and visit,” Butler says. The orchard also hosts a range of events, from school trips to weddings.

Butler says that because Sky Top operates as both an orchard and a venue, marketing is important and constantly evolving with new technology.

“When we first started, our advertisement was pretty much done on radio and television, that’s how you reached people,” Butler explained, saying it all changed with the introduction of home computers. “They’ll search us on the web and see how close it is, estimate the time of arrival and see what we have to offer.”

Sky Top Orchard receives thousands of visitors each fall, with many returning every year to kick off their autumn festivities. Butler says he wants to accommodate these large crowds using Internet-based technology to run operations. He’s currently working with programmers to create an app that guests can use while visiting the orchard.

“You can go out in the field and it will tell you where you are, which row you’re on and what variety it is,” the apple farmer says.

The Internet has also proven to be a valuable tool for research, which Butler says is important to any kind of farming. “From A to Z for research, for identifying bugs or identifying weather,” he says.

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The entrance to Sky Top’s storefront sits empty during its offseason, Zirconia, North Carolina, April 16, 2022. (Photo/Julia Murphy)

Sky Top’s entrance contains its storefront, with wooden barrels scattered around the barn waiting to be filled with apples later this year. Butler says he’d like to run six to ten terminals to keep up with busy sales days, but the lack of a strong Wi-Fi connection makes it difficult to run more than three registers using Square. Sky Top has used a variety of broadband services over the years.

“We had a DSL line from AT&T, but it was so unreliable,” Butler explains. “If you look at rivers of data, we were at the end of the river. So, by the time everyone got their bytes out of the Internet, or out of the system, we had very spotty Internet.”

After dropping AT&T in search of another provider, Butler quickly realized that there were very few options to choose from. “We approached AT&T about putting the DSL line back on, and of course they said, ‘We’re at capacity, we’re not adding new customers’, so we lost it,” Butler says.

Sky Top is currently using Verizon hotspots to run operations, but they are in increasing need of more data. Butler says they have considered Skylink satellites in the past, but since the signals come from Tryon and Brevard, the satellite would have to be much larger than usual to catch the signal, which wasn’t feasible for Butler.

“We had their technicians here and they kept trying to get a strong signal,” Butler says. “But we’re basically in a dead spot because there’s no real residences here for them to service. So, they beam it past us, but they won’t beam it to us.”

Fiber optics provide the fastest and most reliable speeds to households and businesses, capable of downloading and uploading large amounts of data very reliably.

“[Broadband] technologies have evolved to be improved significantly with fiber optics, which is literally a glass fiber the size of a hair,” says Marc Czarnecki, social media coordinator for WNC Broadband, a non-profit that advocates for broadband expansion in WNC. “We’re going to be a part of the infrastructure to implement that in western North Carolina.”

WNC Broadband aims to help residents and small businessowners with a range of broadband issues, from slow speeds to no service at all. The organization works with the state and local governments to develop prioritization schemes to expand broadband access and reliability, Czarnecki says.

“The prioritization scheme being who doesn’t have Internet at all?” Czarnecki explains. “The advocacy has been to create a process here, locally, to map out where those places are, to create the infrastructure.”

He says once this initial stage is achieved, the next tier of the prioritization scheme is to provide high-speed service to areas without it. The FCC defines high-speed broadband as having at least 25 Mbps download speed and at least 3 Mbps upload speed. 

While download speeds are important for anyone using the Internet, upload speeds are especially important for businesses like Sky Top that rely on broadband to run operations.

“Having the data is one thing, but having it properly loaded and disseminated and able to use is a big job every day,” says Butler.

AT&T is currently the only major provider offering fiber-optics in Henderson County, but they have been slow to expand to rural areas since the number of potential customers is lower than suburbs and cities.

“They ran a fiber-optic line right in front of us, but they’ve been stalling hooking us up,” Butler says, adding they may be stalling because of agreements with local and federal governments regarding the low density of residents nearby.

Czarnecki explains that unused fiber optic lines are referred to as “dark fiber” by Internet service providers like AT&T. He says fiber installation is expensive, so providers must meet a certain threshold of potential customers in the area before they begin connecting households to the fiber.

“It takes a crew of individuals that are highly skilled, likely some additional nodes or points of connectivity to implement it,” Czarnecki says.

Two residential subdivisions sit near Sky Top in Zirconia, with one still currently being developed. AT&T plans on building fiber optic lines in those subdivisions and Butler hopes this will allow him to upgrade the broadband at Sky Top.

“We own a lot in that subdivision so we should be able to attach to it. But days go by, you just don’t know,” Butler says.

Czarnecki says WNC Broadband aims to help western North Carolinians like Butler who need reliable Internet access to sustain their business. The organization advocates for these individuals by spreading awareness and education, focusing specifically on local government organizations and officials. Czarnecki says the most important part of successful advocacy is organization.

“It’s not about being a one-sy, but looking at your neighbors and saying, ‘Hey, what can we do collectively to approach and prepare a business case to our council of governments… for implementation as soon as possible?’” Czarnecki says.

Rows of blossoming apple trees stretch across Sky Top’s thousand acres of land. Zirconia, North Carolina. April 16, 2022. (Photo/Julia Murphy)

The apple grower says Sky Top is making do with hotspots for now, but they would like to explore new technology opportunities once they can get more reliable service.

“They’ve gone to 5G which seems to have helped us as far as data we can use,” Butler says. “But we’re in a dark zone; we’d love to see better broadband, better service.”

Czarnecki says he is excited to be a part of WNC Broadband’s team because they have a great vision for the future, focusing on making education, telehealth, and digital literacy more accessible to western North Carolina through broadband expansion.

“I’m part of a great team, thanks to Bill Sederburg, our chair,” says Czarnecki. “He takes that chair with a vision; and his vision, collectively with our whole team, is taking steps forward and I’m super proud to be a part of that team.”

Opinions and statements are not necessarily the views of WNC Broadband or the University of North Carolina at Asheville.