A look at possible next steps — and some already being taken, here and elsewhere — toward improving rural connectivity
A little more than a year ago, close to 100 people showed up at Rappahannock County High School, hoping to get a glimpse of the county’s future.
They were there for an event billed as a “Broadband Forum,” and onstage was an impressive lineup of federal, state and county officials. One speaker after another expounded on how important a broadband connection to the internet had become, how it’s now integrated into farming and health care, business and education.
Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, went so far as to suggest that broadband access could be the key to the county being able to maintain its rustic quality of life.
It was a clear message — and yet more than one member of the audience left that night with the feeling that they’d been to a play missing its second act.
“They were telling us what we already knew,” remembers Monica Worth, who runs her own communications firm, Voice, from her home in Sperryville. “People came there looking for solutions.”
But the path to solutions in the rural broadband universe is seldom straight or well-marked. In communities where providing broadband access is complicated by hilly, wooded terrain, the onus is now largely on local governments — with limited funds and expertise — to make it happen. Private companies are no longer willing to invest heavily in infrastructure for so few potential customers.
This creates a particularly thorny dilemma for a place like Rappahannock. In a countywide survey commissioned by the Foothills Forum and conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research, broadband and cellphone coverage were identified as the top two areas of concern for the respondents. But any new infrastructure would likely require at least some public funding. And, there remains a wariness here about anything that could be associated with change.
“You have several factors of demographics in the county,” noted county supervisor Chris Parrish of Stonewall-Hawthorne district. “The ones who are very eager to get broadband are the ones who can use it for their work. And they’re, by and large, fairly recent arrivals to the county. On the other hand, you have a bunch of people who have been here their whole lives and their families have been here for a long time and they don’t use the internet. And they’re having a pretty hard time paying their real estate taxes as it is. They are certainly not interested in sacrificing their lifestyle for people who need something they don’t need.”
There are clear parallels with the push for rural electrification back in the 1930s, when 90 percent of America’s farms didn’t have electricity. Power companies weren’t much interested in wiring rural areas — it was seen as a huge waste of money — and even argued that most farmers didn’t want or need electricity. The void was filled by rural electric cooperatives, locally owned nonprofits that used loans from the Rural Electrification Administration — a federal agency created by President Franklin Roosevelt — to build power networks in sparsely populated communities.
Rappahannock’s digital dilemma
This is the last 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 2 (Aug. 4): In lieu of cell and broadband connectivity, Rappahannock’s students, visitors, responders and workers plug into some creative solutions.
Today, a small but growing number of electric cooperatives in the United States are taking on broadband access as part of their 21st-century missions, with the hope that it will help slow the flow of young customers from rural communities. So far, however, only one Virginia electric cooperative, BARC Electric, has made a firm commitment. It wants to install high-speed fiber-optic cable to as many as 4,000 customers’ homes in Rockbridge County and the city of Lexington, in conjunction with a major upgrade of its communications network to its substations and meters. That’s an expensive proposition — the cooperative will use a $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service program — but as CEO Michael Keyser pointed out, BARC, as a cooperative, can take as long as 30 years to pay it back, instead of the much shorter time frame facing for-profit companies.
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
Still, BARC’s board of directors didn’t want to go ahead until it had clear evidence that a sizeable percentage of its customers would actually pay for broadband service. So, in the spring of 2015, the cooperative asked customers who wanted to subscribe to sign up online. It took only a few months to reach the goal of 1,550 interested households. Today, the number is about 1,700.
“It didn’t surprise me how quickly we reached our goal,” said Keyser, “because I know how desperate our customers are for high-speed internet.”
The onus on local governments
More often, though, it’s been local governments that have started to take on the challenge of moving the digital ball forward. A few weeks ago, Design Nine, a consulting firm hired by Culpeper County using a $75,000 state grant, finished up a survey of residents and businesses to determine how they use the internet and what their needs might be in the future. One early observation noted by consultant Andrew Cohill is that “we’re seeing more and more people trying to work from home on a part-time or full-time basis.”
A similar Design Nine survey was launched in late June in Fauquier County, which appointed its first broadband advisory committee last spring. So far, the county has committed $60,000 to the consulting firm to assess broadband needs and develop a strategy for how and where to build out a network. Last week, Cohill told the advisory committee that, based on a preliminary estimate, a seven-year buildout of an extensive broadband network in Fauquier could ultimately cost more than $24 million. That debt could be paid off in 15 years, he said, although that would be contingent on more than 50 percent of the households signing up for the service. In Madison County, meanwhile, the board of supervisors voted last month to form its own broadband committee.
But those initiatives amount to toe-dipping compared to the plunge being taken by Orange County’s supervisors, where, according to county administrator Bryan David, they’ve “made broadband connectivity their number one priority.” Last spring, the supervisors created a county broadband authority and appointed themselves to it because, David noted, “as stewards of the county, they want to have direct oversight.”
For starters, the county is putting up close to $700,000 to tap into a 33-mile fiber optic network the Orange County School Board plans to install with the help of a grant from the FCC that covers about 70 percent of the overall cost. At the same time, the county is overhauling its “functionally obsolete” public service radio system. That will involve erecting a network of towers—perhaps as many as 15—that the county would own. That infrastructure, David explained, would be able to house public safety antennas, but also the equipment of private wireless broadband providers—they would be charged service fees, but not rent—and also antennas of cellphone companies, which would lease the space.
It’s a major undertaking, particularly considering that each tower could cost $150,000, but David said it’s viewed as a long-term investment that leverages the FCC grant to enable Orange County to ultimately provide broadband access to 98 percent of the county. “We are taking on the job of building the communications highway to our citizens,” said David, who has 25 years’ experience as a rural county administrator. “It’s tough and very complicated. But education and public safety are two of the most core services of any rural county.
“I understand the risk aversion of governing bodies in rural counties,” he added. “They’re absolutely hardwired to do that, for a lot of good reasons. But we’re getting to the point where not being connected is committing your community to a trend that’s not on a positive slope. There is no steady state in a local economy where you’re neither growing nor contracting. Find me one example.”
But tackling broadband and cellphone issues on that scale is still more exception than rule, and David concedes that without the FCC grant, Orange County would be taking a more gradual approach. That’s what usually makes the most sense for rural governments—first, identifying the sections of a county with the greatest need and demand, and then developing a cost-effective plan for building or using existing infrastructure in phases, often with one or more private partners.
No magic fix
It’s also clear that, at least for the foreseeable future, there is no magic fix. “It’s really a solution of solutions. It’s step by step,” said Jane Dittmar, a former Albemarle County supervisor who has made broadband connectivity a linchpin of her current campaign to represent Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. “You’re not going to work with just one company and you’re not going to have just one way of delivering the service.”
Because installing fiber optic cable to rural homes can be both onerous and prohibitively expensive, the most popular alternative is fixed wireless broadband — an internet signal transmitted through radio waves from a core source, such as a fiber optic connection, and relayed through a series of elevated radios to a dish on a person’s home. But that can be a tricky business in a place like Rappahannock where hills and heavy tree cover often get in the way, and summer thunderstorms can damage equipment.
Rich Shoemaker, owner of Piedmont Broadband in Amissville, is painfully aware of how challenging it can be to get broadband into remote areas. Having access to hilltops is key because it allows the radio signal to be bounced down to homes at lower elevations. Currently, Shoemaker says Piedmont has its equipment on about a dozen different hilltops, enabling it to provide high-speed service to about 330 customers.
He says the company’s business is growing more quickly these days—he hopes to have 400 customers by next spring—but since each installation is unique, often requiring receivers to be mounted high in trees, it is growth that tends to be incremental. To keep expanding, Piedmont will need access to more privately owned hilltops.
“Maybe one thing the county could do is give those people with hilltop land a tax break if they allow broadband equipment to be installed there,” suggests Shoemaker.
Shoemaker and his son Matt have started working with local real estate agents to determine if service can be provided to homes without broadband before they go on the market. “What I think you’re going to see,” he said, “is that some of these properties which were valuable because they were up the side of a mountain and had a nice stream and could use satellite to get TV, well, now they can’t get good internet, and those places may start to drop in value.”
The only other wireless broadband company doing business in Rappahannock is Virginia Broadband, based in Culpeper. But it has only a relative handful of customers in the county. Back in 2008, it did have serious discussions with county officials about a proposal to install a ring of seven 120-foot-high wooden towers in Rappahannock, a project that, according to former county administrator John McCarthy, might have provided broadband access to as much as 85 percent of the county. The plan, said McCarthy, was for Rappahannock to invest about $270,000 in the infrastructure; the cost, he says, would have been covered in five years through lease payments from Virginia Broadband. But when Piedmont’s Rich Shoemaker objected to this proposed deal without competitive bidding, and said his company could provide service without public funding, the project was dropped.
Using ‘TV white space’
A digital guide
Bandwidth: The capacity of a broadband connection, essentially how much data can be sent through a connection at one time.
Broadband: A general term for a high-speed internet connection, distinct from the old dial-up connections. DSL cable, fiber optic, and even satellite are all forms of broadband, albeit at different speeds and quality.
DSL: It stands for Digital Subscriber Line and it’s broadband access over phone lines. Usually, it is not as fast as service through a cable modem and more comparable to fixed wireless broadband.
Femtocell: A small base station that connects to a phone network through your broadband connection and boosts cell service in your home. Sprint’s Airave is an example.
Fiber optic broadband: The fastest form of broadband access in which data is sent via pulses of light through glass or sometimes plastic cables. Also the most costly to install.
Fixed wireless broadband: High-speed internet service provided through radio waves transmitted to a customer’s home rather than through cable or phone lines. More common in rural areas because installation costs are much lower than cable.
Last mile: The final leg of the connection between a service provider and customer’s home or business. With cable and DSL, it’s generally the costliest to install.
Latency: The time it takes to move data from point A to point B in a network. Together with bandwidth, this determines the performance of a broadband connection.
Middle mile: This refers to the internet connection between the last mile connections and a major internet center. In rural areas, middle mile networks usually run along highways.
TV white space: The unused radio frequencies that served as buffer zones that preventing TV broadcasters from interfering with each other’s signals. In 2010, the FCC made these frequencies available for transmitting data and are now being used in some communities to provide wireless broadband service.
VOIP: It stands for Voice Over IP and is a technology for making phone calls over an internet connection. Skype is the most well-known example.
Wi-Fi hotspot: A location where Wi-Fi enabled smart phones, tablets and laptops are, through a router, able to connect to the internet using radio waves.
A common fear of local officials is that they’ll invest in a technology that goes out of date in a few years. People hear about a Google plan to encircle the Earth with high-altitude, broadband-serving balloons, or Facebook using drones for the same purpose, and they are tempted to think that either or both, or maybe something else, will be the answer. But those projects are still in their early stages and, at least initially, will likely be focused on providing internet service to third-world countries, not a community 80 miles west of Washington, D.C.
One technology that does show some promise, however, is wireless broadband that makes use of what’s known as “TV white space.” These are the unused radio frequencies of the old analog TV broadcast bands. They served as buffer zones to prevent broadcasters from interfering with each other’s signals. For years, companies like Google and Microsoft aggressively lobbied the FCC to make those frequencies available to transmit internet data. Finally, in 2010, the federal agency gave the go-ahead.
It requires different equipment than other wireless broadband, and it has taken a few years to develop and get approved by the FCC. Now, though, broadband networks using TV white space are being rolled out in several U.S. communities, including one in Garrett County, Maryland. It’s being managed by Declaration Networks Group (DNG) a firm based in Vienna, Va.
The Garrett County project is relevant to Rappahannock County since the terrain is so similar — rugged, hilly and heavily wooded. Advocates of using TV white space say it’s well-suited for rural areas because it has a greater range than more conventional wireless broadband. Also, it relies on lower radio frequencies, which makes it more effective at transmitting signals over hills and through tree cover.
Still, it requires installing antennas on structures at least 100 feet tall, such as a water tower or an emergency service tower, and then augmenting that with a network of “community masts” about the size of utility poles. Those are topped by radios that transmit the signals to homes and businesses. In Garrett County, according to DNG co-founder Barry Toser, the local government is covering the cost of building that network with an investment of $750,000 over three years, together with a matching grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. So Garrett County will own the infrastructure, but DNG, as the private partner, will run the business and is required to meet certain milestones in signing up customers.
A downside to utilizing TV white space, however, is that because the equipment is still new, it can cost at least twice as much as what’s used for other wireless broadband networks. So DNG is actually building a hybrid system in Garrett County, using both TV white space and more conventional wireless broadband. “TV white space is not always the first option,” said Toser. “We use it when it’s the best solution.”
A cellphone option?
By contrast, cellphone technology hasn’t changed all that much since the Sprint towers went up almost 15 years ago. Still, there are ways to compensate for spotty coverage. More and more local residents and businesses are spending $100 to $200 for a microcell, such as Sprint’s Airave or AT&T’s MicroCell. The device boosts a mobile phone signal by acting like a mini cell tower, using a broadband connection to route calls through the internet. Unfortunately, they don’t work if your internet relies on a satellite connection.
That obviously doesn’t help during a dreaded late-night breakdown on the side of a dark road. But there may soon be a remedy for that grim situation. According to Rich Biby, a communications expert and founder of AGL Magazine about the wireless industry, cellphone companies have begun migrating to a common technology, known as LTE, that will make it technically possible to provide service for customers of all carriers. It would be done through the use of small base stations along a highway. These devices would be attached to 60-foot high poles roughly a mile to a mile and a half apart. This approach would face some serious hurdles — including getting roaming agreements from the big cellphone companies — but Biby thinks it has potential as a public-private partnership. “This is the kind of technological solution that could work in Rappahannock in the future,” he said.
Unraveling the broadband tangle
There are those in Rappahannock who might find that presumptuous, who aren’t convinced that any “technological solution” should be part of the county’s future. This is a place that has neither the resources nor the focus on economic development of an Orange or Culpeper County; in fact, it has shaped its identity around not following the lead of its fast-growing neighbors.
Rappahannock is also facing other issues that can feel more pressing. “We have a fire and rescue service that needs more volunteers because of our aging population,” said county supervisor Mike Biniek of Piedmont district. “There’s a question of whether we need to up the salaries of our sheriff’s deputies and our teachers so we can be more competitive.”
Sandie Terry understands how daunting and complicated the digital dilemma can seem to local officials. She’s vice president of broadband for the state-affiliated Center for Innovative Technology, and she spends a lot of her time these days helping rural counties unravel the broadband tangle.
“Broadband is complex. It’s necessary. And it’s expensive,” Terry said. “It’s overwhelming to local elected officials. Typically, they have a hard time having the conversation on what they want broadband in their communities to look like because they really don’t know. And they hire a consultant who does a plan. But what if they don’t really have the conversation about their community until after they’ve paid a consultant to do a plan. Then it’s a little too late.”
Terry says she encourages local communities to first make a serious assessment of not just who has access and who doesn’t, but also where the greatest needs are, and how broadband coverage fits in with the goals of how a county wants to evolve. It’s also important, she says, to clearly gauge demand and focus on how to raise the community’s “digital literacy.”
“Do we want to get broadband to all these homes so that people are entertained? No, we want to get broadband to those homes so those people can improve their lives,” Terry said. “Well, guess what — if we don’t show them how they’re going to do that, they’re not going to subscribe to the service because they don’t see the benefit.”
Terry’s a big believer in public-private partnerships, but contends that doing a comprehensive assessment, plus identifying what a community can bring to the table — infrastructure assets, grant opportunities, simplifying the permit process — can give local officials more leverage when they go looking for partners. That level of knowledge can likewise benefit a county when it goes in search of grants.
“You see counties go after grant money and then they decide what they want to build,” she said. “Instead, figure out what you need and what your goals are, and then figure out what funding is available.”
Hitting the reset button
That notion of communities taking the initiative in mapping their digital strategies would seem to resonate with at least some of those who left last summer’s Broadband Forum disappointed.
”I think the next step is to put together a plan,” said Adam Beroza, of Cheri Woodard Realtors. “We need to know what we may have to invest and what we would get back. We can’t really have a rational discussion about this without a roadmap that says this is how we get there.”
Adds Gay Street Inn owner Gary Aichele: “What is the vision for 25 years out for this remaining a viable county? I’m a realist. When a community loses control of its future, there will be forces that have been waiting, who will come in, and then you lose all control. There are always forces that will push to develop unless there’s something strong enough to hold them back.”
County supervisor John Lesinski of Hampton district acknowledges that it may be time for the county to hit a reset button. “The overarching feeling here is that we keep things the way they are. I agree with that, but I think this technology allows you to do that. It doesn’t have to be an either-or choice.
“We as a board need to be proactive and study our options and involve the community. And I feel we need to do it sooner rather than later.”
Earlier this month, county administrator Debbie Keyser took a first step by asking the supervisors to consider the creation of a broadband committee. It’s on the agenda to be discussed at their September meeting.
“I don’t see what a broadband committee can hurt,” said Chris Parrish. “If there are knowledgeable people who want to volunteer at no cost to the county to discuss opportunities for broadband, there’s no harm in that.”
“I’m not totally opposed to this, but it depends on who you put on the committee,” added supervisor Ron Frazier of Jackson district. “If we put certain people on there, they’re going to say everyone wants broadband. Or, if you put other people on there, they’ll say there’s not a need for broadband. What are the qualifications of putting someone on a committee like this?”
For his part, Lesinski feels it’s important that it be made up of citizens. “We’ve got smart minds in the county and it’s got to come from a citizen’s group as to how we go about broadband, if we go about it at all.
“I would hope the citizens committee would look at everything from how feasible it is to what would it cost,” Lesinski said, “and what’s the best way to go about this, given how quickly the technology is changing. We can take advantage of all that’s being learned around us.
“Although,” he added, “we are in a unique situation.”
That is really the heart of the matter. There are lessons to be learned from how other rural counties in Virginia deal with a pace of change few could have foreseen. But Rappahannock is its own place, with its own wary view of the future. Ultimately, many questions will be asked in the coming months, but one will be behind them all.
Can a community adapt and not change?