More smoke, less signal

In lieu of cell and broadband connectivity, students, visitors, responders and workers plug into some creative solutions

“If a deputy is in a dead zone and he needs help, he can’t call out on his radio, he can’t call out on his cellphone and he may not be able to get into a house to use a phone. It’s an issue,” said Sheriff Connie Compton, right, with Lt. Janie Jenkins, as an emergency call came into the dispatch center.

Rappahannock’s digital dilemma

This is the second in a three-part series of reports.

Part 1 (July 21): How topography, density, choices made and chances missed have combined to limit Rappahannock County’s connection to a changing world.

Part 3 (Aug. 18): What steps could Rappahannock take to become more connected? How some other rural communities in Virginia and elsewhere are dealing with cellphone and broadband challenges.

In Rappahannock County, there’s always a workaround.

It’s the sheriff’s deputies knowing where they need to drive if they have to make a cell phone call while on duty. Or it’s the kids without a broadband connection at home heading over to the parking lot outside the county library so they can use its Wi-Fi to do their homework. Or it’s B&B owners telling their guests to confirm any reservations, directions or last-minute details of their visits here before they enter the county.

People here take pride in that resourcefulness, in knowing how and where to get connected to the digital world when they need to. They’ve had to learn that because the level of cell phone and broadband coverage in the county hasn’t changed that much during the past 15 years. And yet, as more and more of the functions of daily life require those connections, they worry that it could get harder to do their jobs or run their businesses without consistent and reliable cell phone or broadband access.

E-books and e-learning

Take education. Perhaps as much as any field, its future is tied to internet access. Most education innovations now are largely dependent on students being able to get online, not just to do research, but also to work collaboratively. And most states, including Virginia, are soon expected to begin replacing traditional textbooks with e-books accessible online.

“The outside world is moving even faster,” acknowledges Rappahannock County High School Principal Mike Tupper. “We talk all the time about giving our students 21st-century skills. People think that means technology, but it’s more than that. You have to learn to work and communicate in a team environment. That also means learning to work together on the internet.”

Donna Matthews, superintendent of Rappahannock County Public Schools.

That said, both Tupper and the county schools superintendent, Dr. Donna Matthews — who estimates that at least 40 percent of the county’s students don’t have broadband internet at home — believe the district has done a good job of compensating for the gaps in access. Students without it at home are allowed to spend more time in the school library to do work requiring an internet connection. Tupper also points out that more students these days have smart phones, so they’re able to make use of Wi-Fi hotspots to finish assignments.

“I’m not sure I would call the lack of broadband coverage a liability,” said Matthews. “But we do have to get creative with how we do things.”

School board member Larry Grove, a former high school principal, worries that the situation puts Rappahannock students at a disadvantage. “Not having broadband at home definitely can be an obstacle kids have to get over,” he said. “As a school board member, I believe our kids should have every benefit that kids have in Fairfax, Arlington and Fauquier, and when it comes to broadband, they don’t. It’s not a level playing field.”

Deputies and dead zones

What is the Foothills Forum?

Foothills Forum is an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit supported by the Rappahannock County community tackling the need for more fact-based, in- depth coverage of countywide issues. The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other reporting projects.

More at foothills-forum.org, including:

• An archive of past news coverage of cellphone and broadband issues in Rappahannock

• Links to the April series examining results of the Foothills Forum Survey and a PDF of the full report

• The media agreement between Foothills Forum and Rappahannock Media

Public safety officials in the county have some of the same concerns about not being able to stay on top of the technological advances in their field.

“If we had broadband throughout the county, we could use mobile data terminals in the cars. But we can’t do that,” explained Sheriff Connie Compton. Mobile data terminals are in-car computers that have been found to make police work more efficient and safer. Adds Maj. John Arstino, the deputy sheriff: “Take the case of a deputy making a stop on the side of the road and maybe they have to deal with an unusual situation. If they had broadband, they could pull their phone out, get online and actually read the law. Then they know they can trust their decision instead of winging it.”

The sheriff said she appreciates the tension between the appeal of technology and its cost. She also knows how not having reliable connections affects what can and can’t be done. She saw it recently during the week-long effort in May to find missing 80-year-old Sperryville hiker Wallace Anderson, when searchers had trouble communicating with each other. Anderson’s body was found in Shenandoah National Park.

Richie Burke, emergency services/management coordinator: “We’re a small community, but we have the same type of emergencies that other places have.”

Compton and her deputies know all the spots where they can pick up cell service. In police work, though, there are times when looking for good reception isn’t an option. “If a deputy is in a dead zone and he needs help, he can’t call out on his radio, he can’t call out on his cell phone and he may not be able to get into a house to use a phone,” she said. “It’s an issue.”

Richie Burke, the county’s emergency services/management coordinator, can relate. “It makes you add an extra layer to what you have to do.” he said. “It makes you think that if I really need to make a call, I need to drive here or I need to drive there. Sometimes, you don’t have that luxury. We’re a small community, but we have the same type of emergencies that other places have.

“This county’s a jewel,” Burke added, “and I don’t want it to change. But these things have become basics. Being emergency manager, I get texts and emails constantly. That’s the way life is now.”

Medical coverage

When it comes to health emergencies, particularly for an aging population like Rappahannock’s, a broadband connection can make a big difference in the speed and quality of treatment, noted Dr. Karen Rheuban, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Telehealth. She has seen the practice of telemedicine — the diagnosis and treatment of patients remotely, by phone or computer — improve dramatically in recent years. It has particularly benefitted people who live far from a hospital or a doctor’s office. She estimates, in fact, that through telemedicine, her center will help Virginians avoid driving a total of a million miles this year.

“If someone has a stroke, we can have a video connection to the neurologist back in the ER as soon as the patient gets into the ambulance, or even when they’re still in their home,” Rheuban explained. “Or maybe it’s an elderly patient with a wound. It’s one thing for them to describe it over the phone and then have a home health nurse come out and take a look. But if you can transmit an image, and get feedback immediately from a nurse or doctor, the care could be of a far higher quality.”

Everyday access

Even for taking care of more ordinary personal business, from filing taxes to filling out college or job applications, an internet connection has become more essential. A lot of people without broadband service end up doing that business at the Rappahannock County Library.

“It’s assumed now that everyone can go online and do those things,” says David Shaffer, the library’s director. “Say someone’s looking for a job and they hear about an opening at Applebee’s in Warrenton. So they go there, but they’re told they need to apply online. And this is where they end up to do the application. I probably see that more than anything else.”

Shaffer says the library once had two computers available for visitors to access the internet. Now it has five. “They’re pretty much always is use,” he said. “I’ve seen a real change from when it was kind of neat that we had a couple of computers with internet connections to now it being essential. And, there are the people who park outside after hours to use our internet connection.”

Cheri Woodard: Cell and broadband service "went from not being a big deal to now being much more important to people.”Courtesy of Cheri Woodard Realty
Realtor Cheri Woodard: Cell and broadband service “went from not being a big deal to now being much more important to people.”

Others likewise have become very aware of the escalating value of a good broadband connection. “I’ve been doing real estate since 2002 and the clients’ requirements for cell phone service and broadband internet have increased by 300 percent,” said Cheri Woodard, of Cheri Woodard Realty. “It went from not being a big deal to now being much more important to people.”

“One of the first questions a lot of people ask now is ‘Does the house have high-speed internet?’” said Kaye Kohler, of Kohler Realtors.

It’s reached the point, according to Woodard’s son, realtor Adam Beroza, that if a property on the market has a Comcast internet connection, it will be called out in the listing. He acknowledges that not everyone in the county feels the same need for reliable cell and broadband service.

“It depends on what your situation is,” he said. “Are you getting more concerned about your health? Then these services are important to you. Are you younger and hoping to telecommute? Then they can be extremely important. Not having cell service for a weekend for tourists might seem quaint and quirky. Probably annoying sometimes, too. But it’s a whole ’nother thing when you’re trying to run a business and there’s a problem at your company and they can’t reach you.”

Woodard doesn’t believe the lack of connectivity in parts of the county has had a big impact on real estate values. Still, she recommends that people without broadband service see if they can get it before they try to sell their homes. “It is harder to sell properties to younger consumers if they don’t have these services,” she said. “You just can’t be selling to 60- and 70-year-olds — although we are seeing older people getting more concerned about this, too.”

Agriculture and tourism

Perhaps the dependence on digital technology, however, is strongest among local businesses and tourist destinations, for whom it has become increasingly vital. That’s even true of the one most responsible for Rappahannock’s pastoral identity — agriculture. Today, there are all kinds of mobile apps designed to help farmers. As Mike Peterson, founder of Heritage Hollow Farms, explained, a pasture-mapping app provides an aerial view of a farm and records the daily movements of livestock so a farmer can closely track grazing patterns. Another app keeps detailed records of each cow and calf, including the weight of each animal.

“You have all of this in real time instead of making a note of how a calf looks and having to go back to the office to check records, and then head back to the field,” said Peterson. He and his wife, Molly, lease land for their livestock in several locations, so it’s the kind of tool that could make them much more efficient. Also, he says, being without cell service when he’s out in the field with animals much of the day raises safety issues.

Since many of the customers for their beef, pork and lamb come from outside Rappahannock, they also appreciate how the county can befuddle visitors. “We’re young farmers and we have a small business that we think is the kind of thing that can keep people coming out here,” said Molly. “But these days people don’t plan ahead what they’re going to do when they get here,” said Molly. “So when they do, they can’t find places. Or, they don’t know what’s here and can’t find out on their phones.”

Or, maybe they come out to Rappahannock and then want to let their friends know about it — usually without much success. “People take pictures of themselves having fun and they want to share photos with their friends,” said Mary Ann Dancisin, general manager of Narmada Winery. “They’ve become so used to instant communication. But they usually can’t get on social media out here so their friends may never hear about us. It definitely has a negative impact.”

It’s a common refrain of those whose livelihoods largely depend on the habits and memories of strangers. During the past decade, for better or worse, behaviors have changed, expectations are different. It’s certainly something Gary Aichele has learned during the past three years he and his wife, Wendy, have owned the Gay Street Inn in Washington.

Gary Aichele, who serves on the Washington Town Council and owns the Gay Street Inn with his wife, Wendy: ““The idea that we can assume that things will go on in Rappahannock as they have in the past is, I think, naïve and dangerous. “

“A lot of people don’t do much homework any more before they get in the car,” said Aichele, who’s also a member of the Washington Town Council. “They don’t look at maps. They rely on their phones. The truth is there’s no one who needs to come here to stay with us. It’s a choice. So what drives the economy of Rappahannock? Hundreds and hundreds of people making choices about how they spend their money. They don’t have to come here. They can go to Luray. They can go to Winchester. They can go to Frederick, Maryland.

“My experience is that the economy here is pretty fragile,” he added. “The idea that we can assume that things will go on in Rappahannock as they have in the past is, I think, naïve and dangerous. I think the county’s well-being hinges on a fairly subtle and complicated mix of doing everything we can to keep farmers farming because that’s what creates the landscapes, but also doing everything we can to have as many entrepreneurs and small businesses doing as well as they can.”

It’s one of the more vexing challenges faced by Debbie Keyser, the county’s new administrator. She’s a big believer in the potential of tourism as a revenue booster. Right now, she points out, only 5 percent of the county’s income comes from retail sales, lodging and tourism; all of the rest is generated through property taxes. That, Keyser says, is not a healthy balance.

And yet, there’s always that anxiety about tipping things too far.

“We need to find a way to keep this type of lifestyle as the world changes around us,” she said. “But to keep Rappahannock the same green community, I do believe we need better services to help with tourism. It’s becoming vital to our economic health.”

In which areas do you think the need for reliable broadband is most critical in Rappahannock County? Take the poll.

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