Conway’s grand plan

Published 11:40 am Monday, October 8, 2012

CONWAY – Affordable Internet access and consistent and better cellular phone coverage is something a lot of people long for in the Roanoke-Chowan area.

On Tuesday evening during the Conway Board of Commissioners’ meeting, town officials spoke about their desire to provide just that for the citizens of their community.

Mayor Brian Bolton said the town would like to lay out an Internet access plan and get support from elected officials. Meanwhile, Bolton said the town was hoping to get the same support when it comes to cell phone coverage.

Bolton noted a letter he received from Donna Sullivan with the North Carolina Department of Commerce explaining House Bill 129, which prohibits municipalities from owning and operating government owned networks without going through an approval process.

“Our plan was this: the worldwide broadband initiative sponsored by Golden LEAF is coming right down (US) 158 through Conway, actually right across Northampton County,” he said. “What we would like to see is instead of this broadband initiative being used to help all of these big name companies make more money off the consumer let’s look at the municipalities getting a hold of this creating a Wi-Fi network for each one of the municipalities that they can get it to the citizens at a very low cost.”

Bolton noted how the Internet is key for Conway citizens to be competitive in the job market and education as well as attracting businesses.

“The only way to get this done is to have low-cost high speed Internet in our area,” he said. “We’re a Tier 1 county, we’re a low to moderate income town and you can’t expect a family that is on Social Services to pay $50 a month for Internet service. We’ve got to figure out how to level the playing field.”

Bolton said the proposal is the town would try to get funds together to get the necessary equipment to create a Wi-Fi network and offer it to the citizens at a low cost in a non-profit situation.

“If we could get it down to $15 to $20 per household then we could get it down where it is manageable for some of these families,” he said. “At the same time we’re not taxing the people that are already being taxed a lot just to give it (the money) to somebody else. It makes it fair for everybody.”

Bolton said Sullivan has agreed to meet with town officials at a later date and that there are grant opportunities within the League of Municipalities. He added the reason why House Bill 129 prohibits towns from owning networks is because Internet is not considered a utility.

“At some point we need to get high-speed Internet considered as a utility,” he said. “Once that’s done grant agencies like CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) would be able to look at hook up fees and help cover those hook up fees.”

Northampton County Economic Director Gary Brown noted there are representatives with the Northeast Commission that may be good resources for the town to conceptualize how the system may work in the municipality and may be a liaison between the town and who owns the Internet infrastructure.

Richard Bunch with the North Carolina Department of Commerce said he also had a person that he could contact about the town’s plan.

Bolton noted there are municipalities in the state that do have a wireless network that allows residents to subscribe.

Bolton also spoke about the town’s desire to have consistent and competitive cellular coverage. He noted how US Cellular is the most popular in the area because of its broad coverage reasons and how Verizon is also a choice for local citizens because they can purchase an iPhone.

“We’re getting premium prices from both because of the advantages they have over each other, but if you couldn’t tell them apart there would be a huge push to get the prices down to try to keep people,” he said.

Bolton said the only way citizens can get their worth of what they’re paying for is to keep pressure on the carriers.

“It’s going to take government officials calling the right people and putting pressure on them,” he said. “If we squeak loud enough we’ll get oil.”

Bolton said he has spoken to both Verizon and US Cellular about placing antennas on Conway’s water tower and even offering space in town.

“They say there are not enough people, but there are enough people to sell them phones,” he said. “My thing is, if you have enough people to buy your product, you need to support your product.”