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“It’s a huge game changer here. We have a gig sitting pretty much wherever you want it. We have faster speeds than Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, wherever.”

Dean Russell, project manager, Country Cablevision

On his first night in Yancey County, eight years ago, Dean Russell drove his truck to the parking lot of an Ingles supermarket and stared off into the distance. The hillside was dark, except where amber lights irregularly disturbed the night sky.

“I looked up on the mountains and tried to figure out where all these houses were,” the broadband project manager recalls. He came to the western North Carolina mountains to oversee the installation of a fiber optic cable network funded by a $25.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. It would be the 32nd major project he’d run since starting in the communications industry in 1985; before coming to North Carolina, he was on a job in Akron, Ohio.

“This is very unheard of,” he remembers thinking of the Yancey County project. “It’s not your typical build, I can tell you that.”

The following morning, Russell set to work planning and implementing the fiber network for Country Cablevision, which serves customers in Yancey and Mitchell counties. The grant was written to secure 650 miles of fiber optic cable—a number estimated by driving distance. “I knew right away that things were probably underestimated,” Russell says, “but I just didn’t realize they were that far underestimated. Once we got the total, it was up to me to stretch it as far as we could.”

“When we mapped all of it out, it was 1,497 miles to actually build in the two counties.”

Dean Russell, project manager, Country Cablevision.

“They were about to close their doors because they just didn’t have access to internet here.”

To date, Russell managed to stretch the grant dollars to build 909 miles of fiber in some of the most rural sections of the state. “They’re actually splicing out in the cow fields,” he says with a laugh.

But even before the entire network was finished, it led to transformative change for the community.

Businesses had begun to feel the acute challenges of operating in a 21st Century economy with dated internet technology that crippled workers at a wide range of offices—from manufacturing facilities to service-based companies. “The most speed they had was like three to six megs,” Russell says.

He quickly learned of a major employer—Glen Raven, a fabrics manufacturer whose flagship brand, Sunbrella, is a popular outdoor product—that was considering closing its Burnsville plant and moving those operations to its headquarters in Alamance County because of the lack of connectivity. The Burnsville plant is an economic engine, but it also has sentimental value. Glen Raven is America’s largest manufacturer of flag and banner fabrics; workers at the Yancey County facility weave those red, white, and blue threads together to make American flags. “They were about to close their doors because they just didn’t have access to internet here,” Russell says. Such a move would have been catastrophic for the local economy, which depends on the textile manufacturing jobs.

Shari and Brian Buza, a mother and son Country Cablevision network technician team.

In 2014, Russell brought the first leg of the fiber network online.

“They were actually our very first customer,” he says of Glen Raven. “We got them hooked up to a gig and instantaneously it made their life so much better. Now their IT department is up here because they have higher speeds here than they did at their home office.”

That experience, Russell explains, represents the larger impact broadband access has had on Yancey and Haywood counties. “It’s a huge game changer here. We have a gig sitting pretty much wherever you want it. We have faster speeds than Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, wherever.”

“Now that it’s in place you see every walk of life moving into this community.”

“This would not have been built without the government grant.”

That’s not to say installing the fiber optic cable was an easy task.

Yancey County is home to Mt. Mitchell—at 6,684 feet, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River—plus five additional mountains that rank among the 10 tallest in the state. The terrain is unforgivable. “Some people say, ‘Well, it’s too rural, too steep, the terrain’s too rough.’ If we can build it here, they can build it,” Russell says.

Another factor made broadband expansion in this community challenging: It is sparsely populated, making the initial investment to build a network significant. “The homes are so spread out, it just doesn’t make dollar sense,” for most large commercial providers, Russell explains. “You might build two miles of fiber and only pick up three customers. That becomes a huge cost per home.”

That’s why the USDA Rural Utilities Service funds were so important. Russell offers a blunt assessment of the project’s feasibility without that support: “This would not have been built without the government grant.”

“There’s kids up in these mountains that have access to faster internet than what’s in Charlotte’s center city.”

Sometimes, Russell will think about the transformation—what access to broadband internet has done for this community and for the people who live here—since he first pulled into that Ingles parking lot in 2010.

But now, when he looks into the night sky, sees the darkness of the hillsides broken by amber light, he thinks about all the lives that have been changed simply because people now have access to modern technology.

“There’s kids up in these mountains that have access to faster internet than what’s in Charlotte’s center city.”