Optical network benefits rural Carolina schools

JANUARY 4, 2007 -- In a first for western North Carolina, BalsamWest FiberNET has announced the installation of a fiber-optic network connecting 45 school sites in seven rural school districts, including the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

JANUARY 4, 2007 -- In a first for western North Carolina, BalsamWest FiberNET has announced the installation of a fiber-optic network connecting 45 school sites in seven rural school districts, including the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Portions of BalsamWest's approximately 300-mile tri-state fiber-optic backbone ring and community networks are being provided to the schools to create an education network to be owned and controlled by the rural schools.

Connectivity for the 45 school sites composing Phase I of the Western North Carolina Education Network (WNC-EdNET) is the first rollout of the network to bring next-generation communication capabilities to more than 70 school sites in the isolated Appalachian region. The WNC-EdNET will enable very low-cost access to ultra-high-capacity bandwidth for voice, video, data, and distance learning applications unseen before in the region. Because BalsamWest's business model allows for projects that enhance quality of life in the mountain communities within its network area, the company says it is able to offer this connectivity at rates far below the market, enabling access to an even greater segment of the region's population.

Running through the highest and most rugged terrain east of the Rocky Mountains, a dedicated portion of BalsamWest's fiber-optic pipeline will connect rural schools, colleges, and universities to share content and applications from within and outside the area.

"Quality of life in the 21st century will be largely determined by access to the highest quality education and training," said Dr. Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College and an architect and key advocate of the BalsamWest venture. "This is particularly true for hard-to-serve rural areas isolated by location with limited choices available. Access to a fiber-optic-based communication system for these schools will more than level the education playing field. It will position our rural schools to be national leaders, our students to have access to the finest education and training available, and our region for a prosperous future."

Originating in Sylva, NC, and connecting the tri-state area to nearby metropolitan centers, BalsamWest's fiber-optic network is connecting K-12 public and charter schools, school district offices, network operations centers, and higher education institutions in the counties of Clay, Cherokee, Graham, Jackson, Macon, and Swain, and the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Installation of the network began in 2003 through a collaborative partnership of Franklin-based software developer Drake Enterprises and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, NC.

Southwestern Community College in Webster, NC, provided critical research to BalsamWest that was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington as well as by state and local nonprofits and foundations. The college also provided advocacy and support for BalsamWest's efforts in the southwestern North Carolina region.

Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Cooperative provided fiber-optic infrastructure in Cherokee County, interconnecting it to BalsamWest's network ring. Local underground utility construction company Southern Pipeline Utility is providing construction services for the school sites where needed. Collectively known as the "ASAP Partners" (Alliance for Southern Appalachian Prosperity), the fiber-optic network owners believe they have ensured the schools in the southwestern region of North Carolina will save more than $60 million in circuit and content costs over the next 20 years.

"This network will serve as a catalyst for advances in education as well as health care, public services, economic opportunities, and job creation for the Eastern Band and Western North Carolina," said Brandon Stephens, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and chairman of the board of BalsamWest FiberNET. "We are thrilled to be a part of this venture and are excited about the opportunities on the horizon."

Through an investment of $14 million, the construction of BalsamWest's fiber-optic network was funded by its founding members, Drake Enterprises, Ltd. and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Grants for Phase I of the WNC-EdNET were awarded to the Western Region Education Service Alliance (WRESA) by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Golden LEAF Foundation.

"We couldn't have accomplished this great feat without the help and support of Executive Director Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Commission, Roger Metcalf with the Western Region Education Service Alliance, Sen. John Snow from Cherokee County, Erskine Bowles, past chairman of the N.C. Rural Prosperity Taskforce and current president of the North Carolina University System, and many more," said David Hubbs of Drake Enterprises, Ltd.

Phase II of the WNC-EdNET is expected to be completed in 2007. At that time, every school, college, and university in the region will be connected together with the freedom to choose educational content and resources from regional, national, and even international institutions.

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