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It might not be their day jobs, but Eric "Zonker" Harris and David Woronoff have become quite adept at scaling roof shingles during the past month.
The Pilot's technology guru and publisher, respectively, Harris and Woronoff are putting their necks on the line in more ways than one in trying to redefine Moore County Internet access.
Since mid-July, the newspaper's Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) Internet service has been up and running in downtown Southern Pines.
"And we're going to grow from there as quickly as we can deploy," Harris said.
The first phase of the wireless project, a WiFi broadband connection service several times faster than dial-up, is available along the Broad Street corridor in downtown Southern Pines between the Post Office and the Southern Pines Depot.
Harris reports that an average of 15 users have been connecting daily to the service, which is free and best accessible outdoors in public spaces.
And these first two towers, one above The Pilot and the other above the Posh Building at 115 N.E. Broad St., are just the start of things to come.
By Halloween, the plan is to have WiFi towers activated throughout southern Moore County, and to be able to sell Internet access to residents and businesses in that area, Woronoff said.
Northern Moore County and the WiMax network, a faster connection that will be offered on a subscription basis, are next.
"The goal is to be able to be in a position to deliver high-speed broadband Internet access to every household in Moore County," Woronoff said of the venture announced July 13.
This is the first newspaper-hosted WiFi network in North Carolina and possibly in the nation. Already featured in such national industry publications as Editor & Publisher and Presstime, the initiative has created quite a buzz.
"The Presstime article was about three newspapers on the cutting edge -- The Milwaukee Sentinel, The Boston Globe and us," Woronoff said. "That's pretty good company."
Since the mid-July launch of the "mother ship," some operational issues and growing pains have slowed the network's proliferation, Harris said.
"There are kinks in any deployment," he said. "That is normal and expected. If there were no kinks, I would be very worried."
Harris is working on securing small receivers for business storefronts and homes, to work with the towers to create a larger mesh network.
The overall network is in a holding pattern until these technical issues are explored further, he said.
"We intend to start offering connections to individual subscribers in downtown Southern Pines very soon and expand outward from there," he said. "There's still a certain amount of testing and establishing the right mix of equipment to be done."
West Southern Pines is next on the rollout schedule. Woronoff and Harris have been in discussions with Southern Pines Town Manager Reagan Parsons, among others, about the location of the tower in that area, most likely atop the Douglass Center.
"This is going to bring Southern Pines into the current century," Parsons said.
As the networks expand, Internet access in public places will remain free, though time- limited. For residents and businesses in these areas, Pilot Broadband will sell a 24/7, unlimited-access service inexpensively.
"Getting more of the county better Internet can only be a benefit to our community and the local economy as well," Harris said. "We see a need for an additional choice for broadband and believe we can fill that need."
Woronoff explained that The Pilot is inherently equipped to provide high-quality Internet service.
"We have all sorts of inside advantages," he said, citing the systems the newspaper already has in place for accounting and subscription management.
The plan is to tie Internet service in with newspaper subscriptions -- a move he and his partners have been eyeing for more than a decade.
The Pilot's shareholders were all, in some way, tied to The News & Observer's pioneering start-up Nando.net -- an early-1990s initiative that sought to marry dial-up Internet service and newspaper subscriptions.
In many ways, The Pilot Broadband is an extension of what Nando started.
"Nando was a great learning experience," Harris said. "It is our distant ancestor, but what we are building is much more advanced, evolved and robust."
He added that the broadband venture is more an extension of The Pilot's brand of community journalism.
"We believe our Internet venture and the new tools that technology lets us employ will just let us do our job that much better and faster," he said. "I view it as if we are adding a new press, but this one is bits and bytes, not paper and ink."
Both Woronoff and Harris stressed that the venture will offer Pilot signatures, such as top-notch customer service.
"Any other company can (provide Internet access), and several do," Woronoff said. "But with us you're going to get the same service for about half the price, and you're dealing with a local company.
"When you call, you're going to get a Moore County person on the phone."
And even though Harris commutes to work daily from Cary, he is available around the clock to answer questions about the network.
Any questions regarding the network or progress can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Harris, The Pilot Broadband is the next logical step in making The Pilot a complete information portal for Moore County.
"We are becoming an increasingly unwired and mobile world," he said. "If we can help our community and their changing ways, then we should."
Ryan Tuck can be reached at 693-2507 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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