The Hidden Community in the Mountains-Understanding the Importance of Broadband Development in Rural Communities
By Lauren Callaghan and Jensen Stephenson
With the past two years of COVID-19 turning the corner to an endemic, we cannot forget about broadband and its unexpected ability to carry us through the pandemic. Our lives before the pandemic were ones filled with broadband usage, but we didn’t truly understand our reliance on internet capability, and accessibility until we transitioned our entire lives to online. Students woke up in their schools and had to hop on computers to see their teachers, working individuals had to navigate at homework settings, and businesses closed leaving the masses unemployed.
As we begin to navigate our times after the heat of the pandemic, and some of the needs that have stood out for communities, it couldn’t be more crucial than now to reflect on some of the gained knowledge from our experiences.
“I think the pandemic pointed out a lot of the areas that we have lacked in this little community of Sylva and Cullowhee. Mostly that of the accessibility points. During the pandemic, Western Carolina University shut down and for those of us who have apartments here, we still needed campus as our major accessibility point. Realizing that campus wasn’t readily available, and our surroundings were closing was honestly pretty humbling. You wouldn’t expect to struggle to do an assignment, but it was an absolute struggle because we lacked our major access points,” said Desmond Worrell.
According to Smoky Mountain journalist Hannah McLeod, “I think one thing to remember is that in talking about broadband in any sense is the idea that during the pandemic it just magnified all of those problems. People are supposed to be able to sit at home and learn, and work, and teach, and if you live where you don’t even have cellphone service, how is that going to happen?”
The pandemic made us aware of how critical access to the internet is, as people needed to connect to work, school, and healthcare appointments. Families began ordering takeout more than ever before and restaurants experienced their dining room services closed and had to turn to takeout under COVID-19 guidelines. According to Executive Order No. 118 made on March 17, 2020, by Governor Roy Cooper, “NOW, THEREFORE, by the authority vested in me as the Governor by the Constitution and the laws of the State of North Carolina, IT IS ORDERED: Section 1. Limiting the Sale and Food and Beverages, to Carry-out, Drive-Through, and Delivery Only.”
This new order sent many restaurants across the state into a state of panic. Many didn’t necessarily have the means to support their businesses through these mandates. McLane Alston a WCU student and resident of Cullowhee said, “Sylva and Cullowhee didn’t have the means of using services like UberEats, or GrubHub because it’s so small, and honestly, most of the fast-food places didn’t have enough people to work. While we had local grocery stores those services were also struggling to have the manpower to run it all. I think this town just overall saw a major hit because of its size.”
Staying afloat for many businesses in an area like Sylva which is fueled by the smaller population of locals, and the larger WCU college population saw some dramatic hits because of the university shutting down and sending its students home.
While COVID-19 was an international pandemic, here in Western North Carolina, it felt a little different in each town. From Asheville to Waynesville, Franklin to Sylva each had different needs. One thing they all shared was the need to connect to Broadband. Broadband is defined as, “internet access that allows users to connect with the digital services they need in our ever-changing world,” per wncbroadband.org. Broadband in Western North Carolina, especially in the Sylva and Cullowhee areas, has been an issue for several years, but notably has stood out in the last two.
Western Carolina University’s enrollment size expands the local infrastructure, and thus aids in the expansion of economic growth between Cullowhee and Sylva. The university’s presence has aided in triggering much of the broadband expansion in the local area.
Facility Management Director Lee Smith, who manages much of the planning, maintenances, and organization of facilities and properties on TCU’s campus stated, “Western North Carolina (University) owns their power system and came to an agreement in 2018 with Morris Broadband to place their broadband lines on the same poles that are currently carrying power lines. Their biggest intent for this decision was to attract more people to the area as a whole.” The poles supplying higher-speed internet contributed to the growth of Cullowhee and the economic development of Sylva.
Though the community couldn’t stop there. If the town was going to flourish at the same rate as the local university had to make sure it could keep up. “I think that is actually why there is such an urgency now with all of these grants,” said Hannah McLeod.
Over the last few years, Jackson County has seen quite the introduction of broadband funding through numerous grants. Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order in 2019 to increase internet availability across the state. There was also a $5 million initiative related to providing devices and internet access to students. Programs like these will take time to officially roll out and have a seen effect are major stepping stones in the right direction towards proper funding for broadband. Another notable is that on a bigger scale the Broadband Equity Access Development program distributes money to each state for their broadband distribution and installation. The priority for the program is rural and unserved areas, which the GREAT grant is also working to do.
With multiple mechanisms of funding coming to Jackson County there is some hope for the broadband expansion of Sylva, NC. Having such an opportunity will aid in many of the downtown experiences over the next few years. Events like small business Saturdays and the farmers market attract many visitors every Saturday, bringing more activity to the area, as they can bring in tourists. Both events also bring economic benefits to Sylva but require Wi-Fi access for those that do not carry cash.
The farmers market allows cards by providing a card reader which is processed through tokens that individuals then exchange for the items they buy. One of the benefits of Jackson County’s
free Wi-Fi is the locals can connect their devices to more reliable Wi-Fi sources rather than using their cell service, or hotspot which is already spotty in this location.
Even as broadband in Sylva and Cullowhee has grown over the last several years, there is more work to be done. The various grants that have been issued thus far should greatly increase the ability to gain stronger broadband support in these areas. The COVID-19 pandemic especially has shown that as we rely on the internet for everything from working at home, to school on Zoom.