Moving Ahead, Slow but Steady
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.
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.
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.”