BANNER ELK — While it may not be the launch the Town of Banner Elk expected, but its much anticipated WiFi project is now fully functional and open to the public.
The free WiFi is still technically in the testing phase, but anyone who is in downtown Banner Elk will be able to access the network, which covers the downtown area between Lees-McRae to Tate-Evans Town Park. Users simply have to sign-on on their devices in order to get online.
“It is publicly available for anyone who might need it for school work or any other type of work access,” Town Manager Rick Owen said. “All the antennas are working and available to the public right now. We’re making it available early because we know people have a need for internet service.”
At some point in the future, the town will hold a reveal ceremony, but due to social distancing measures the celebration will have to wait. In the meantime, the town is encouraging residents to take advantage of the new resource.
“[People] can come to the Town Hall or the park and can park in any of the parking areas here. Currently our park is still open to the public. Of course, we’re still enforcing all of the social distancing requirements and group requirements. In theory, you could sit in a car here at the park or at a picnic table and do homework,” Owen said.
Owen noted that the original intent of the project was for visitors to be able to get online while they were shopping or dining in the downtown area. The Appalachian Regional Commission provided the town a matching grant to install and operate the system for one year. The WiFi antennas are mounted on several of the decorative light poles lining the streets. The town has fiber internet connections running to three locations in the town, and Owen said that getting the internet hooked up was just a matter of getting the electricity connected to the other antenna locations.
Additionally, Avery County is pursuing another Appalachian Regional Commission grant with plans to install broadband around the area of Crossnore and the southern end of the county. The county had previously used funds from the federal and state grant partnership program to install internet cables around the Linville Falls area. The grant application is due on April 20, according to County Manager Phillip Barrier.
If the county is awarded the grant, the county will open up the bid process to companies interested in laying the cables. The previous grant, which provided a $100,000 match to install the cables, was awarded to LightLeap out of Hickory. The company then provided $100,000 out of its own funds to lay the cables. The Avery County Chamber of Commerce served as the nonprofit that administered the grant.
“We might give it to some other provider this time, whoever the committee thinks will make the biggest impact in an underserved area,” Barrier said.