Mov­ing Ahead, Slow but Steady

Rappahannock News - - RAPPAHANNOCK SNAPSHOT - By Sara Schon­hardt Foothills Fo­rum

This up­dates the Foothills Fo­rum/Rappahannock News three-part se­ries, “Rappahannock’s Dig­i­tal Dilemma,” pub­lished July 21, Aug. 4 and Aug. 18, 2016.

Alack of broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity and poor cell­phone ser­vice has long plagued this hilly, sparsely pop­u­lated county. Spotty sig­nals or dead zones have be­come a pub­lic health and safety is­sue that wor­ries res­i­dents, while the lack of re­li­able in­ter­net ac­cess also raises con­cerns about how much it hin­ders ed­u­ca­tion, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and the abil­ity of work­ers to telecom­mute.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey com­mis­sioned by a broad­band com­mit­tee the Board of Su­per­vi­sors ap­pointed in 2016, 23 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they would work from home if they had bet­ter in­ter­net ac­cess and 21 per­cent of house­holds in­di­cated they need a broad­band con­nec­tion to sup­port their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

Yet some res­i­dents have protested the build­ing of tow­ers needed to im­prove con­nec­tiv­ity be­cause of the im­pact they would have on view­sheds, and the su­per­vi­sors have been di­vided on whether to spend limited tax dol­lars on what some do not yet view as a ne­ces­sity.

THE LAT­EST

Rappahannock is not alone in strug­gling to pro­vide bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity to res­i­dents. A plan by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture to fund in­ter­net providers who con­nect parts of the ru­ral U.S. has been crit­i­cized for fail­ing to ad­dress slow speeds, bad con­nec­tions and ex­pen­sive ser­vices.

But there has been progress in Rappahannock, most no­tably the link­ing of the county li­brary and schools to a high-speed fiber net­work run by Sprint af­fil­i­ate Shen­tel. Li­brary di­rec­tor David Shaf­fer said peo­ple are hap­pier with the speed and re­li­a­bil­ity of the new ser­vice. There’s been an uptick in the num­ber of users who con­nect from the li­brary’s park­ing lot, he added.

Made pos­si­ble by the FCC’s E-rate pro­gram, which pro­vides dis­counts to help schools and li­braries pay for in­ter­net ac­cess, the fiber link has more than tripled the school dis­trict’s ser­vice to 500 mbps (me­gabits per se­cond) with the abil­ity to dou­ble the speed to 1 gi­ga­byte. Ev­ery stu­dent now has ei­ther a Chrome­book or lap­top and teach­ers are us­ing on­line pro­grams such as Google Class­room to ad­vance their in­struc­tion.

“We can even tap into tech­nol­ogy that we haven’t yet, as we’re de­vel­op­ing work­force train­ing and more ad­vanced cod­ing and in­te­grat­ing com­puter sci­ence stan­dards,” said School Su­per­in­ten­dent Dr. Shan­non Grim­s­ley.

Robin Bolt, the school dis­trict’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices, led the push to get the fiber con­nec­tion, but her ef­forts were bol­stered by the Broad­band Com­mit­tee. Chaired by Hamp­ton Dis­trict su­per­vi­sor John Lesin­ski with six ap­pointed mem­bers, its goal was to as­sess gaps in cov­er­age in the county and iden­tify spe­cific com­mu­nity needs for im­proved broad­band ser­vice.

The com­mit­tee’s Novem­ber 2017 sur­vey found that 70 per­cent of res­i­den­tial re­spon­dents say their ser­vice is ex­pen­sive, un­re­li­able or in­ad­e­quate, and more than one fourth of all busi­nesses con­sider their in­ter­net ser­vice un­ac­cept­able. It also helped iden­tify the un­der­served and un­served ar­eas of the county and raised aware­ness about how a lack of con­nec­tiv­ity was a pub­lic-ser­vice is­sue.

Im­prov­ing pub­lic safety was the im­pe­tus be­hind an­other ma­jor com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vel­op­ment: Ap­proval in July of a com­mu­ni­ca­tions tower in Sper­ryville. In ad­di­tion to meet­ing the need for a pub­lic safety pag­ing sys­tem, it will also host equip­ment for lo­cal wire­less in­ter­net provider Pied­mont Broad­band and pro­vide ac­cess to cel­lu­lar broad­band through Shen­tel and T-Mo­bile.

Com­mu­nity Wire­less Ser­vice is fi­nal­iz­ing its build­ing per­mit and plans to be­gin con­struc­tion soon, ac­cord­ing to spokes­woman Hope McCreary. T-Mo­bile, which has signed a lease with CWS, is ex­pected to be­gin pro­vid­ing ser­vice by mid-year.

A spokesman at Cen­tu­ryLink said the provider is work­ing on a project in Huntly us­ing the FCC’s Con­nect Amer­ica Funds that will bring broad­band with faster down­load speeds to more than 100 res­i­dents this year.

WHAT’S NEXT

Lesin­ski and county ad­min­is­tra­tor Gar­rey Curry have al­ready met with sev­eral IT providers to bet­ter un­der­stand the op­tions for more com­mu­ni­ca­tions im­prove­ments. They’re also work­ing to iden­tify po­ten­tial fund­ing sources.

“We’re just try­ing to learn who’s in­ter­ested and what the right tech­nol­ogy is,” said Lesin­ski, who has sought ad­vice from a su­per­vi­sor spear­head­ing Fauquier County’s broad­band ex­pan­sion ef­forts on which providers to ap­proach and what tech­nolo­gies might work best in Rappahannock.

Af­ter de­bat­ing last June whether to dis­band, the Broad­band Com­mit­tee de­cided to first pre­pare an in­terim re­port to re­view what it has ac­com­plished and sug­gest next steps. Among the rec­om­men­da­tions it’s con­sid­er­ing are that su­per­vi­sors take a se­ri­ous look at what would be in­volved in adding more tow­ers while be­ing mind­ful of their vis­ual im­pact, ad­dress broad­band in the com­pre­hen­sive plan and con­sider guide­lines to de­velop pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships. Lesin­ski said he’s hope­ful Shen­tel could ex­tend its fiber net­work into the agri­cul­tural ex­ten­sion of­fice in Wash­ing­ton, giv­ing busi­nesses in the vil­lage a boost.

Shen­tel re­cently pur­chased the rights to pro­vide Sprint wire­less ser­vice through­out Rappahannock and is link­ing the le­gacy Sprint cell sites to the Shen­tel net­work, said Dan Meenan, the vice pres­i­dent of Shen­tel’s wire­less de­vel­op­ment net­work. He wouldn’t con­firm spe­cific ar­eas for ex­pan­sion, but said the com­pany plans to add more cell sites, such as the Sper­ryville tower, to im­prove cov­er­age.

Lesin­ski rec­og­nizes that the ar­eas of progress are the “low-hang­ing fruit,” and ex­pand­ing speeds and ser­vice doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily ad­dress af­ford­abil­ity is­sues. Emer­gency ser­vice per­son­nel say the hol­lows are still in des­per­ate need of cell con­nec­tiv­ity. In some parts of Vir­ginia, com­pa­nies like Vi­ennabased Dec­la­ra­tion Net­work Group are ex­pand­ing newer tech­nolo­gies, such as the use of TV white space, un­used ra­dio fre­quen­cies of old ana­log TV broad­cast bands. But com­pany sales and mar­ket­ing head Barry Toser says they don’t have any im­me­di­ate plans for Rappahannock.

Af­ter pre­par­ing the in­terim as­sess­ment, Lesin­ski said the Broad­band Com­mit­tee de­cided it will con­tinue to op­er­ate and fo­cus more on find­ing res­i­den­tial so­lu­tions, which he said is a big­ger chal­lenge.

Bet­ter broad­band will roll out over a long pe­riod of time, Lesin­ski added, but there is grow­ing aware­ness that it is nec­es­sary. “We just have to find the right providers, we have to find the right tech­nol­ogy be­fore we start ask­ing peo­ple to ded­i­cate dol­lars.”

JOHN LESIN­SKI Chair of Broad­band Com­mit­tee and Su­per­vi­sor for Hamp­ton Dis­trict (pic­tured with county li­brary di­rec­tor David Shaf­fer in front of Shen­tel’s router in the li­brary’s base­ment.) His big­gest con­cern:“If the gov­ern­ment doesn’t have po­lit­i­cal will to tackle the prob­lem, it’s not go­ing to get solved and it’s not an easy prob­lem, it takes ded­i­cated time and en­ergy, and even­tu­ally it takes the ded­i­ca­tion of re­sources.” What makes him hope­ful:“The fact that the peo­ple want it.”

DR. SHAN­NON GRIM­S­LEY School Su­per­in­ten­dent Her big­gest con­cern:“I worry a lot about our aging pop­u­la­tion and the emer­gency ser­vices and ca­pa­bil­ity to get help if you need it.” What makes her hope­ful: “I think what we’ve done here is hope­fully open the door to some more op­por­tu­ni­ties for providers to come in.”

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