Wilkes Communications Strives to Serve Even Remote Areas
Telephone cooperative offers high-quality internet access
It helps to have connections, and Wilkes Communications is making sure that holds true throughout Wilkes County.
The Wilkesboro-based telephone cooperative has made high-speed broadband internet connectivity available throughout most of Wilkes County, making Wilkes one of only a few rural communities across the state of North Carolina that has such extensive service. In the recent past, the company installed 800 miles of underground fiber-optic cable, so its coverage area is now 562 square miles of Wilkes County’s 754 square miles.
“High-quality internet access continues to be more and more essential for everything from education to basic commerce in the 21st century,” says Linda Cheek, president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce. “People want to live where there is broadband service.”
Cheek points out that North Carolina is increasingly split in providing such service to residents, with urban areas able to attract providers who are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, but rural areas are often ignored because big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks in remote locations.
“But in Wilkes County, the cooperative of Wilkes Communications and its RiverStreet Networks affiliate is taking fiber where the big companies won’t,” she says. “Wilkes Communications has already upgraded from copper to fiber optics, with some help from broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas.”
9,200 Customers and Growing
Today, Wilkes Communications provides telephone, TV, Internet, video surveillance and personal emergency response services to more than 9,200 customers in Wilkes County, and the company has 86 employees – doubling its size over the last 10 years.
“Within Wilkes County, the most remote area we serve would be the gated community of Blue Ridge Mountain Club, which covers both Wilkes and Watauga counties,” says Jody Call, Wilkes Communications director of network operations. “An average drive time to reach that development is 45 minutes. Meanwhile, outside of Wilkes County, our subsidiary RiverStreet Networks provides services in Saluda, Barnardsville and Fair Bluff, NC, which respectively are three, three and four hours from our headquarters in Wilkesboro.”
Officials add that installing a fiber-optic network to remote-area homes, businesses, schools, churches, fire stations and other public institutions has been difficult at times, with challenges such as material shortages, inclement weather and rough/rocky terrain.
“We also operate a little differently than the big providers because we are a cooperative owned by its members, so we aren’t in the game for bottom dollars,” says Amanda Perry, Wilkes Communications director of sales and marketing. “Our first phone call was made in 1958 and since that first call, we have been through the launch of long-distance services, dial-up services, high-speed internet, digital TV and now a state-of-the-art fiber network. Our goal is to add value to the lives of our customers.”
Investing in the Future
Perry adds that investing in the academic future of Wilkes County is a large part of what the team at Wilkes Communications believes in.
“Each year, we open up scholarship opportunities to children of our 9,200 members,” she says. “The program has been around since 2002, and we have awarded more than $215,000 to students of Wilkes County to help with college expenses.”
Perry says the company’s Scholarship Committee in 2017 is awarding a total of 30 annual scholarships valued at $1,000 along with one $5,000 scholarship, bringing the overall total to more than $250,000.
“We feel strongly about supporting the children of this county in hopes that they will take what they have learned, not only in college with help from scholarships, but through youth development and leadership programs we engage in, and bring that back home to help grow the county,” she says. “Our next leaders are here, and we are actively involved in making sure they have the tools needed to reach their full potential.”
In addition, employees with Wilkes Communications serve on multiple boards and committees in many capacities, including United Way, Wilkes County Community Foundation, Wilkes Circles of Care and the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, to name a few. The cooperative also hosts annual food drives, toy drives and school supply drives, with incentives for its members to participate.