The Town of Highlands is one step closer to providing high-speed internet access to every resident.
During the May meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor informed commissioners that the Highlands Town Board is investing $4.6 million to expand the town’s broadband capabilities to every house within the town limits. Some 3,000 residents and businesses will benefit from the project, which is nearly ready to break ground.
“We already have the loan and approved the construction contract at the May Town Board meeting with no changes,” said Mayor Taylor. “We approved an administration contract to oversee the build-out. Construction begins in weeks. We are way ahead of most small towns in NC in providing this essential utility.”
While Highlands has been working on the project for quite a while, the May Macon County Commissioners meeting was the first opportunity for commissioners to learn of the town’s efforts and opportunity to partner with the town of Highlands.
Taylor asked commissioners to consider helping to fund the project to the tune of $1 million, or $250,000 over the next four years.
“I asked the county for support since we already provide broadband for customers not living in town by way of Altitude [the town’s current limited broadband option],” explained Taylor. “We are asking for a partnership like in recreation where everyone, whether living in town or the county, uses the Highlands recreation facilities. The county pays a significant part of the budget and contributed 350k to recreation capital projects. It’s a great and beneficial partnership.”
Mayor Taylor believes the project would be beneficial for the county and the town in large part because “Highlands residents pay a significant portion of the total Macon County tax bill,” he said.
If the county chooses, they could pay additional costs to expand the fiber network beyond Highlands and into other areas of the county in the future.
The county has a specific fund within the existing budget to expand broadband throughout the county, making a partnership between the two governments likely.
According to Highlands MIS/GIS Director, the town is building and owning all of the fiber on the aerial poles and is paying JBL Communications $4.397 million for that construction.
“The town will retain a portion of those fibers for Smart City Grid uses, such as metering and monitoring of our electric grid and water grid. While these systems will not go in place immediately, we are planning for them,” said Shuler. “We just had to have the fiber first. The plan is for Wide Open to lease the remaining fibers for their network from the town, which will recoup its loan payments in 20-25 years.”
Wide Open will operate the system and independent providers like Northland, Highlands Cable Group, Frontier or Altitude be Wide Open customers to deliver broadband packages to businesses and residents who will choose which provider they want to use.
Town Manager Josh Ward said the town will be leasing dark fiber to Wide Open Networks to assist in paying back the loan
“The Town will pay the loan off in 15 years – which is the length of term — but the leasing of dark fiber will take 23 years or so to recoup the full amount borrowed.”
Whether Wide Open is involved that long is unknown at this time.
“By law we can only have a 10-year lease agreement with Wide Open,” said Mayor Taylor. “They will pay us a monthly payment from their operations that will service the bank loan. After 10 years we may continue with WON to continue paying the note or pick another operator and continue the same arrangement to service the loan.”
The mayor said the goal is to pay back the loan in full with funds coming from the operation of the network. After the loan is paid, the town could make a profit from the network operation.
“An indirect benefit will be the ability to maintain a Smart City Grid system through the fiber network that will improve efficiencies and save utility costs in the long run.
At Tuesday night’s MC Board of Commission meeting, commissioners decided not to allocate$250,000 for Highlands broadband in the FY 2019-’20 budget but to wait and discuss it again in July after the budget is passed.
By Brittney Lofthouse