CHARLOTTE – What does the promise of a high-speed internet network mean for the future of Gaston County and other parts of North Carolina outside the major metropolitan areas?

 That’s the question that organizers of the GigWOW workshop on March 21 expect attendees to ponder, discuss, and learn throughout the two-hour event at TechWorks of Gaston County and subsequent reception at Riverman Brewing in Belmont, NC.

A statewide conversation, North Carolina Hearts Gigabit, is also set to be held at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh on Friday, April 20 at 9 a.m., hosted by NC Broadband Matters.

“A fast internet infrastructure is great,” said Alan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Open Broadband, co-founder of NC Broadband Matters, and a speaker at the event, “but what you can do with it is even more important.”

During the workshop, which is based on the Mozilla Foundation’s Gigabit 101 format, attendees will participate in interactive exercises to understand the differences in a low latency gigabit connection versus traditional internet connection speeds, said Fitzpatrick. They’ll consider how access to gigabit internet networks can benefit small businesses and impact businesses in a variety of industries, including energy, finance, telehealth, education, robotics, and agriculture.

“We’re planning to have a very focused conversation,” said Christa Wagner Vinson, co-founder of NC Broadband Matters and one of the organizers and hosts of the event, “about what the arrival of this infrastructure means to future growth and opportunity.”

Mozilla Foundation’s role

The Mozilla Foundation will kick off the event, sharing recent research on the impact of gigabit internet via webcast. The audience will then be asked to participate in interactive exercises to consider how gaining access high-speed internet could change daily life for residents or businesses. Following the interactive exercises, the audience will view a real-world application of gigabit technology from a small business owner and additional presentations about the potential applications of gigabit internet.

This is the second Gigabit 101 program presented by the Mozilla Foundation in the region. The first occurred in 2017 and was hosted at the Google Fiber building in Uptown Charlotte. Organizers identified Gaston County as a community that was rapidly expanding access to gigabit internet and was actively cultivating leaders to have a conversation about the future of internet access in their county.

 Gaston County’s Gigabit Committee, commissioned in 2015 to capitalize on the availability of high-speed internet in the region, later helped establish the gigabit-enabled TechWorks of Gaston County Innovation Center.

Educating about the possibilities

 Gigabit internet is already available in some areas of the county with plans to expand to a larger footprint in 2018, said Fitzpatrick, whose company, Open Broadband, builds network infrastructure and provides internet service. AT&T also provides fiber service in some parts of Gaston County.

 “Having fast internet is great,” said Fitzpatrick. “Now we need to show the towns, the businesses, and the residents what’s possible with the new infrastructure.”

 The Town of Belmont now provides free gigabit internet at designated free public wifi zones, setting the model of other towns in the county to ask for the same access. Downtown areas and public parks are frequently requested, said Fitzpatrick, as residents typically enjoy internet access in public areas.

 “In our work with rural North Carolina communities,” said Fitzpatrick, “we find that education and telework are common themes.” In nearly every community across the state, and particularly in rural communities, families are concerned about children having affordable broadband service, said Fitzpatrick.

 For example, while DSL offerings don’t provide the download or upload speeds required to watch educational videos, stream music or other media, or video chat with a teacher to get an assignment after needing a sick day at home, the cable broadband options in many communities cost in excess of $100 per month. According to Fitzpatrick, Open Broadband enters the marketplace in rural communities and works to provide high-speed gigabit internet access for around $30 per month.

 “In rural North Carolina, there is still a great need for affordable, reliable, abundant internet options that will keep these communities competitive in the future,” said Wagner Vinson. “It takes leadership and organization to move broadband communities forward—but we’re hopeful that there’s a gigabit future for people all across our state.”