The Broadband Puzzle

September 19, 2019

Throughout rural Virginia, communities face a variety of exciting opportunities and formidable challenges, with many of those issues varying upon the region of the Commonwealth. I’ve often been fascinated by the changing conversations – transportation and I-81 in Southwest Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL in areas east of I-95.

Yet, there is one issue that has continually driven the discussion in every region I’ve visited; one puzzle that remains at least partially unsolved in both the mountains and on the coast.

Broadband.

Though the subject of countless summits, seminars, and whitepapers, the goal of affordable high-speed broadband access in every community continues to be elusive.

However, even as it may seem that progress has stagnated, a glance around the Commonwealth can renew hope for a connected future.  Counties are thinking outside the box, working hard to increase access to broadband in ways that best fit the needs and strengths of their individual communities.

Let’s examine one such locality: Orange County, Virginia.  I first learned of Orange County’s big plans for broadband when Lewis Foster, Broadband Program Manager, discussed their blueprint at one of our Regional Meetings back in June.  Later, Lewis was kind enough to share with me the vision for Orange County’s broadband future. Below is our conversation.

Angela: Lewis, tell me about broadband access in Orange County.

Orange County is predominately rural with limited broadband availability.  Right now, private sector broadband companies can’t provide affordable, high-speed broadband service in rural areas because they have no profit guarantee.  Providing internet service requires large upfront capital expenses, but rural areas have a relatively small potential customer base so internet companies may not recoup their initial investment.  

So, it’s not surprising that, according to our surveys, only 12% of Orange County citizens with internet speeds of greater than 25 megabits per second, are satisfied with their service, while 25% say they do not have any internet at all.

A: What are your goals for broadband access in Orange County?

Our overarching goal is to bring affordable broadband service to our rural community one connection at a time, while enhancing quality of life and fostering economic development.

We also want to reduce capital costs and start-up operating expenses for private sector providers to ensure that our unserved and underserved citizens and businesses have a choice of broadband options.

A: What’s the plan to meet those goals?

The Orange County Broadband Authority’s (OCBA) solution to our broadband challenge is multi-faceted. First, we’ll leverage our existing fiber assets connecting schools and public safety facilities by upsizing the fiber counts. In the meantime, we’ll build multi-tenant towers with the initial goal of supporting a first responders radio system.  We’ll then put these towers to dual use by allowing service providers to install broadband equipment, therefore utilizing the towers’ additional fiber capacity to provide broadband.  This step is significant because the construction cost of towers and fiber is very expensive and often impedes service providers from entering the market in some communities.

By significantly reducing capital expense barriers for private service providers, we can recruit new companies to our community to provide affordable, reliable broadband options.

We’ve already used our recent broadband survey results to develop 13 service areas that are unserved or underserved in Orange County. We’re now in the process of prioritizing each service area, determining funding sources, and developing a master schedule.

A: What might challenge this plan?

Obtaining enough funding, recruiting new providers with reasonable rates, dealing with the tree cover and terrain, and obtaining the necessary construction workforce to complete each service area on time and under budget will all present challenges.

A: What would you like other counties to know about your program?

You need to engage citizens and businesses to assess the actual broadband needs in your community because the current broadband coverage maps are often inaccurate. I would also advise that folks complete the following steps when mapping out a plan:

  • Determine existing broadband coverage.
  • Determine current broadband capacity.
  • Determine current and future broadband demands.
  • Leverage capital projects (schools, public safety, etc.) that include broadband infrastructure (fiber and towers) to lower future broadband costs.
  • Prioritize service areas based on survey results.
  • Evaluate broadband connectivity options (fiber, wireless, hybrid, etc.) for each service area.
  • Determine cost per service area.
  • Determine projected days to complete each service area.
  • Evaluate funding options for each service area (grants, loans, etc.)
  • Develop Master Broadband Plan implementation schedule-based on priorities and funding.

We at VACo offer our thanks to Lewis and Orange County for taking the time to speak with us about their exciting plan to provide internet access in their community. It is our hope that by learning about this model, more localities will be inspired to find their own pathway forward.

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