By David Rogers. August 8, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — It may be a business model dating back to the mid-1700s, but a “cooperative” has brought the present AND future to Blowing Rock.
COVER IMAGE: With SkyLine/SkyBest’s Ed Hinson and Karen Powell wielding the scissors, the ribbon was cut Friday for the cooperative’s new fibre-optic broadband services in Blowing Rock. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
SkyLine/SkyBest celebrated its arrival in Blowing Rock on Friday with a ribbon cutting in front of Memorial Park, hosted by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce. Some two dozen civic, government and business leaders witnessed the ceremonies, including North Carolina State House Representative Ray Russell and U.S. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx.
Seventy years ago, it was the SkyLine/SkyBest cooperative that brought critical telephone connections to five rural counties in northwest North Carolina and east Tennessee.
In bringing broadband speeds to downtown businesses at up to a symmetrical one Gigabyte (1GB, or 1,000 MB), the regional cooperative is helping residents and businesses enter the fiber-optic age.
During opening remarks at the ribbon-cutting event, SkyLine PR Administrator Karen Powell alluded to SkyLine’s history in recalling that the company was organized by local residents 70 years ago. She said the then fledgling cooperative utility brought critical telephone connections to areas of five rural counties in northwest NC and east Tennessee that existing telephone companies refused to serve. Powell added how SkyLine/SkyBest’s current efforts to bring fiber to Blowing Rock and other communities mirror the cooperative’s original mission.
“Our work to get fiber to more and more communities is as critical now as bringing telephone service to the region was decades ago,” she said. “While technology is our first priority, our cooperative is also strongly engaged with and supportive of the communities we serve. We hope our founders would be proud of these efforts.”
Blowing Rock is a natural fit for us.
“As a cooperative,” SkyLine/SkyBest Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Edward Hinson further explained to Blowing Rock News, “we were created to meet the needs of the community, whether that is through telephone, broadband, or any products that we have. We are able to serve areas that the larger companies cannot because they are beholden first and foremost to their shareholders.
“Blowing Rock is a natural fit for us,” Hinson continued. “Even with a bustling downtown, the deficiencies in broadband communication services really stood out. Working with the community, we were able to make a business case for bringing fiber (optics) here. We aren’t investing in yesterday’s technology. Bringing just 10-15-20 Mbps service to a customer doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re bringing symmetrical Gig-level speeds — both ways (uploading and downloading). That’s taking us into the future, meeting the demands that have been created by advances in technology.
“For-profit companies are continually looking for a return on investment (ROI),” Hinson concluded. “Our model is totally different. We are here to serve. We don’t have to operate on (profit) margins that please stockholders. Our members live and work in the community we serve. Providing fiber is still expensive, but as a cooperative we qualify for state and federal government grant assistance. So we’re not just putting a Band-Aid on yesterday’s technology. We are moving the communities we serve into the future.”
Asked whether or not the timing for Blowing Rock is especially important given the pandemic measures, Hinson replied, “That may be a silver lining, if you can even call it that, with the COVID-19 situation. You have students from elementary through college who need better, faster connections to take advantage of remote learning technologies.
“And it is not just for residents and students,” added Hinson. “Business people are increasingly working from home. We are growing toward a remote working economy. Toward that end, at SkyLine/SkyBest, we are working on grants to help our communities take advantage.”
SkyLine/SkyBest worked with the Town of Blowing Rock for more than two years in putting together the partnership celebrated on Friday.
“SkyLine/SkyBest’s willingness to put a hub here in Blowing Rock,” noted Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox, “which they worked with the Town to locate over by Fire Station 1, was a tremendous investment on their behalf. It shows that they plan to be here for quite some time. The end goal, for the citizens, businesses and visitors is the very best of broadband services that are provided right now. That is very significant for a town of Blowing Rock’s size. It is a great partnership, locally, in providing these broadband services.”
The ‘digital divide’ is a problem everywhere, but it is particularly severe in Watauga County…
Also in attendance on Friday was Ben Powell, a management professor at Appalachian State’s Walker College of Business. Blowing Rock News asked Powell to put into perspective what SkyLine/SkyBest is bringing in fiber-optic broadband technology verses the market demand.
“The digital divide is a problem everywhere,” Powell pointed out, “but it is particularly severe in Watauga County for several reasons. Our mountain geography makes it more expensive to run cable and makes wireless solutions less feasible. Exacerbating the technical difficulties are economic ones. Our county’s poverty rate is among the highest in North Carolina, and housing costs in areas with high-speed Internet tend to be very high. The need for high-speed Internet in our region is an issue that our elective representatives are well aware of and have spoken about frequently. I think the silver lining is that their voices will now be heard because of the effect that COVID-19 is having on K-12 and secondary education – as well as on employment. There is no easy solution, but I think that we will start seeing improvements and that rural electric cooperatives will play a major role in those improvements.”
While SkyLine/SkyBest’s new broadband services are currently available on Main Street and up Sunset Drive, plans are to eventually offer the fiber-optic based broadband capability to all areas of Blowing Rock.