Rappahannock broadband still buffering

Fire and rescue response: ‘Without cell coverage we have to wait until we get halfway to Fauquier or Culpeper’

Broadband survey to reach all county residents by this fall

By Hannah Galeone
Special to the Rappahannock News

Exactly one decade ago, the Rappahannock County Broadband Initiative Committee filed its first report outlining potential broadband providers and strategies to improve connectivity throughout the county. But shortly after the report was filed, the entire committee fell by the wayside.

Despite the disbandment of the original panel, at the beginning of this year the Rappahannock Broadband Committee was re-formed by hands-on county supervisor and committee chair John Lesinski.

Photo by Hannah Galeone
The Rappahannock County Broadband Committee during a meeting at the Rappahannock Library earlier this month.

In part, the committee was reinstated in response to a survey conducted by the nonprofit journalism group Foothills Forum and its findings that two of the main concerns of Rappahannock residents are internet and cell phone service throughout the county.

“It was time for the board of supervisors to step up and try to address the issue for public safety, education, health (telemedicine), and business concerns,” Lesinski replies when asked why he chose to assist with bringing the committee back. “It is time that Rappahannock enters the realm of communication technology of the 21st century.”

When Lesinski chose to restart the committee, he brought the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) onboard to collaborate with county supervisors and residents. The center is a nonprofit organization that works to create tactics for bringing broadband services to rural areas such as Rappahannock.

The CIT also works to improve technologies and services that are already in place. One of the most desirable characteristics of the CIT is the fact that it is free and brings an array of benefits that can assist with private and public partnerships.

In a rural area such as Rappahannock, residents experience difficulty receiving improved services from large corporations such as Comcast or Verizon. The cost of installing broadband equipment in an area like ours is just not worth it to them. Digging trenches for underground wiring is taxing on time, money, and energy — resources that corporate service providers simply are not willing to part with.

The good thing, for the population of residents who want better connectivity, is that technologies are rapidly advancing. Although no single technology or service will be able to provide Rappahannock County with the broadband access that is strongly desired by a large number of residents, there are ways that improvement can happen.

Now, the task at hand for the Rappahannock Broadband Committee is finding the technology, or combination of technologies, that best suits the county and its needs.

The strengthening of cell service and internet connection is crucial to the safety of residents in the county, most would argue. The lack of strong and reliable coverage in the area puts the local police, fire departments, and rescue teams at a loss, as their number one way of communicating about and responding to emergency situations is radio and cell phone use.

“The radio system we use does not provide 100 percent coverage and unfortunately where the radio falls short, cell coverage is worse,” says Paul Komar, president of the Castleton Volunteer Fire Department.

The patchy and weak signals throughout the county make providing quick and efficient health and safety care very difficult, he explains. Improving cell phone connectivity could allow local rescue and EMS teams to expedite their services and get patient information to hospitals more quickly.

“One of our new protocols being released soon is to call the hospital via phone to provide patient information so they can be registered as a patient, so care can start the minute we pull into the ER [emergency room],” Komar notes. “Without cell coverage we have to wait until we get halfway to Fauquier or Culpeper before we can find adequate coverage.”

Despite the large percentage of Rappahannock residents who are strongly in favor of improving the internet and cell phone connection in the county, there is a small percentage of the population for whom it serves a concern.

These citizens have expressed apprehensiveness about bringing better broadband to the county because of what they claim are potential health issues it could impose. These residents feel that radiation from towers or wireless internet service providing (WISP) equipment could be a danger to both human and animal health.

The group of people that have these concerns is small but vocal in their opinion, yet when contacted by this reporter they declined to speak on record.

Although residents have expressed troubles with the idea for these and other reasons, Lesinski says: “Broadband is one of those things that doesn’t have to compromise the kind of culture we have [in Rappahannock].”

In their meetings this year, the Rappahannock Broadband Committee has also received a few questions surrounding the Center for Innovative Technology, with which the committee has been working to find solutions. Some residents question whether this government entity is the best choice for rural broadband throughout the county.

“[The committee] meetings have been going very well and have been well attended,” says Lesinski.

He also stresses that residents can expect to see broadband movement in the near future: the committee plans on “rolling out a survey to all citizens this fall that has been developed by the CIT to assess the true needs and demands in the county.”

Lesinski says that the committee is currently “in the first stages of developing [its] public awareness campaign for the survey which will be rolled out shortly after Labor Day.”

This campaign will be made accessible to Rappahannock residents before the standardized survey conducted by CIT. The main objective is to collect feedback from residents on broadband connectivity, determine what services people are currently using, and what improvements they wish to see.

Lesinski says that “if there is anything [he] hopes to achieve in [my] term on the board of supervisors, it is to try to get a better understanding of what’s needed to provide a broadband solution [in Rappahannock County].”

After the survey is completed, the committee will have a better grasp on what the county’s residents truly desire and what type of services and infrastructures will be needed to meet their main requests. The services will most likely be provided through a form of a public-private partnership agreement.

Hannah Galeone, a resident of Castleton who is majoring in English and literary studies at the University of Mary Washington (class of 2018), is interning this summer with the Rappahannock News.

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1 Comment

  1. Hannah is my granddaughter and I am so proud of her. I read this article and was amazed. Thank you for giving her such a wonderful opportunity to gain the experience she needs to develop skills in her major.

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