“I can’t stress enough the value of public-private partnerships. That has made this whole thing work.”
— Ron Walters, executive director, PANGAEA Internet
Ron Walters likes to use a diagram when he speaks to groups, a picture that illustrates the collaboration at the heart of his organization’s success.
A navy blue circle is surrounded by multi-colored boxes. A green box represents foundations. Orange stands for government. A purple box signifies utilities providers; a red one notes vendors. Gray is for customers, a royal blue box represents the community at large, and a light blue box signifies education partners. The boxes run all the way around the circle, with arrows pointing toward its center. Walters references the illustration because it clearly demonstrates the partnerships that enable PANGAEA, the nonprofit broadband provider he runs in rural western North Carolina, to fulfill its mission.
“I can’t stress enough the value of public-private partnerships,” he says. “That has made this whole thing work.”
“The whole area needs an enhanced quality of life that high-speed internet can bring.”
The partnerships that created PANGAEA, and propelled its growth, started nearly two decades ago.
Around the year 2000, leaders in the town of Tryon recognized the need for high-speed internet in Polk County. They sought and received a $375,000 grant from the Rural Internet Access Authority in North Carolina to begin building a fiber network. In 2003, they created e-Polk, Inc., to operate the PANGAEA Internet network as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. That enabled the new organization to receive grant funding in its quest to expand fiber service through the community—connecting businesses, schools, government offices, and more. “From that point, we simply continued to expand the network,” Walters says, through a mix of partner and grant funding.
As with many rural broadband initiatives, PANGAEA grew from a realization that high-speed internet access is critical to the economic, educational, and social health of all communities. Furthermore, it spawned from a need to better serve residents who had no access to broadband internet—and to improve their quality of life. In North Carolina, seven percent of the state’s residents have no access to high-speed broadband, according to a Brookings Institution report. And many more North Carolinians don’t have access to the type of high-speed connections that are commonplace in major cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh. “The whole area needs an enhanced quality of life that high-speed internet can bring,” says Walters, who joined the organization 11 years ago.
“It takes the community to get a project like this under way. It takes community ownership.”
Today, the fiber network is sprawling, running 250 miles in two counties, and connecting every public school, Isothermal Community College, six municipal governments, two county governments, two hospitals, and nearly 170 commercial buildings. “We’re providing big city connections to small, rural areas,” Walters says. In Rutherford County, the middle and high schools have a 10-gigabit connection back to the district administration building. “That’s huge. It’s typically the speed you only see in large metropolitan areas,” he says. “Once you have that fiber infrastructure in place, the connectivity speeds are virtually unlimited.”
But none of that would have been possible, he knows, without the early partnerships, the relationships with all of those boxes on his favorite illustration. “It takes the community to get a project like this under way. It takes community ownership.”
In the initial stages of the partnership, many of the people involved were unpaid. “They literally spent hundreds or thousands of hours—volunteer hours—identifying the need, finding the funding, figuring out how to design an internet network,” Walters says. It took three years just to get the program off the ground. “As with anything, if you’re one of the first movers, you’re not always going to make the best choices. But by moving quickly, we have now been able to realize 15 years of benefits.”
Those benefits extend beyond the hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable.
“When you leverage these partnerships, you can accomplish amazing things with very small support infrastructure.”
In 2015, PANGAEA launched a pilot project for public Wi-Fi service in downtown Tryon. The following year, it received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to expand the program to the central business districts of Chimney Rock Village, Lake Lure, Saluda, and Columbus, and to a park and recreation facility in Tryon.
As is the PANGAEA way, the Wi-Fi resulted from partnerships—collaboration among the municipal governments, a funding organization, and the small internet provider’s staff. “When you leverage these partnerships, you can accomplish amazing things with very small support infrastructure,” Walters says. To underscore that point, he notes that the company’s staff is just four people, including himself. “Our customer service number is our operations director’s cell phone number.”
“Public/private partnerships have provided the necessary puzzle pieces to create this state-of-the-art network and dramatic community impact.”
Because Polk and Rutherford counties were on the leading edge of rural broadband expansion in North Carolina, the various PANGAEA stakeholders are often asked for advice about building a successful broadband partnership in other rural areas.
There are practical considerations when building critical infrastructure, Walters notes. “You can’t have enough fiber optic cable. Take every opportunity,” he says to other rural communities embarking on their own high-speed internet projects—especially ones involving public-private partnerships. “Every time a trench is opened, at least install conduit. Install twice as much as you think you need. We continue to underestimate the demand for internet access.”
But the personal attention and can-do spirit that permeates PANGAEA—from its early days to today’s culture—is something other rural communities can (and should) replicate. He refers back to his favorite diagram, which includes a notation at the bottom: “Public/private partnerships have provided the necessary puzzle pieces to create this state-of-the-art network and dramatic community impact.”
In other words, the community members who participated in PANGAEA’s early planning, implementation, and growth—along with their neighbors—helped build the network that improved the quality of life and economic success of Polk and Rutherford counties.
“The community has become a stakeholder in our joint venture,” Walters says.