‘To just plow through . . . would be a mistake’

More than 30 people from around the county and beyond, including reporter Randy Rieland (standing), gathered on Friday to discuss cell and broadband coverage at a forum sponsored by the Rappahannock News and the Foothills Forum.
More than 30 people from around the county and beyond, including reporter Randy Rieland (standing, above), gathered on Friday to discuss cell and broadband coverage at a forum sponsored by the Rappahannock News and the Foothills Forum. LINDSAY SONNETT/FOOTHILLS FORUM
Photos by Lindsay Sonnett/Foothills Forum
Lindsay Sonnett/Foothills Forum

More than 30 interested citizens showed up for last Friday’s forum, jointly hosted by the Rappahannock News and the Foothills Forum at Tula’s Restaurant in Washington, a discussion focused on the start of a Foothills-sponsored series on cell and broadband issues in Rappahannock. Among the comments that stood out during the session (a video of which can be found on the Rappahannock News’ Facebook page) were:

• From Debbie Keyser, Rappahannock County administrator:

On Monday I hope to meet, in closed session, with the board of supervisors to deal with my goals for the county — those are my goals as an employee, but I am hoping to walk out of there with permission to put together a committee to study broadband. I do agree that it’s vital to our community, and you’ve heard me talk about our pristine environment that is important to everyone here as it is to me, as well. So hopefully we can do that. I have been to Orange County and met with Orange officials and know what they’re doing. They are being very progressive. They have fiber [optic cable] that is being run through their county, and it’s going to be coming into Culpeper County. I don’t want to miss that opportunity . . . and timing is everything. I know it will be a while, but we need to start planning now.

I know we don’t have the tax base to put a lot of money into it, and so we need to start seeking grants. It takes a village. Also, get in touch with your supervisors. They need to hear that it’s important to you, and what you’re thinking. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them, send an email and contact them by phone.

• From Gary Aichele, co-proprietor of the Gay Street Inn and a member of the Washington Town Council:

I’m here because I support this, but I’m here to tell you that, even if someone stands up and says, “I have a grant that will cover the cost of everything involved in building it,” you will have serious pushback in this county. I’ve lived in rural areas a lot of my life, and I’ll tell you that every time you pave a road, every time you put in a bridge, every time you suggest anything that looks like development, people come up out of the woods, literally, and will show up at meetings, and will shout you down.

There’s two pieces to this. One is the technical side. I think we’ve got that covered. I’ve never lived in a place that had so much intelligence, experience, so much passion . . . That’s one of the reasons we’re here.

On the other hand, there’s a political issue. How do you convince those folks who are born and bred, and trace their roots deep into the soil of this county, that the future of this county lies in some kind of . . .  planned vision for how we maintain virtually everything we love — and remain viable?

There are many ways we can engage our neighbors and our friends. And to begin to help them to understand that what they love about this county — raising families here, maintaining its beauty, its environment, its ecology — won’t happen unless there are real live human beings who want to come here, live here, invest here. How do we get that done? As I said, to just plow through, as if this is already the political will of this county, would be a mistake.

• Joe Lenig, director of sales and marketing and a founder of Virginia Broadband (VABB), a wireless broadband provider based in Culpeper County, in answer to a question of whether local government help is now a requirement for such companies build their network infrastructure (towers and access points):

It is in low-populated areas.

And that is what some of the other counties are trying to do right now . . . What Orange County is doing, what Nelson County has done, what two counties on the Eastern Shore have done . . . they are taking taxpayer dollars and they are building infrastructure themselves. They are building county towers, they are building fiber-optic networks, and then they are handing it over to companies like ours, to say “Okay, it’s yours, run it, pay us this fee each month, or pay us a certain percentage of your revenue each month.”

The issue that you have in Rappahannock County is your terrain. So, No. 1, wirelessly, I have to be able to either see your rooftop without any obstructions to get you a beautiful wireless connection. Or I have to have what’s called non-line-of-sight, which means there could be a few trees in the way, but not a whole forest, and  I have to be pretty close to you as far as my broadcast is concerned. So right there, Rappahannock has challenges.

It’s all about the math. Wireless internet is the most inexpensive way to get the internet out . . . it’s robust, it’s fast. We do it all the time. But it costs money — a heckuva lot less than running cable, or fiber, but it costs money.

• Lynn Sullivan, Washington entrepreneur:

I did a survey about a year ago of young people, in the Virginia Piedmont, and the No. 1 issue that came up is there was no affordable housing — short-term housing, for tourism. The average cost of a B&B is over $300 per night. . . . Our whole tax base is property taxes. A little more retail, and meals and lodging . . . but the mindset that we have here that is not business friendly, does not promote tourism, does not provide affordable housing, even though we have the inventory — we have plenty of inventory.

And part of getting people to visit is that people expect cell service, and they expect internet. I think it’s absolutely critical if we’re going to grow our tax base beyond just property taxes, we have to get a broader mix of people coming and going and living out here. And to do that people have to be able to telework.

These days, everybody can telework. Everybody.

• Audrey Regnery, Washington:

My biggest concern is that we don’t have cell coverage. How many of you in this room have been broke down on a back road? Dark skies? Right. No cell coverage. How dangerous is that? How many of you have been in the woods and had an accident, with a chainsaw? No cell phone coverage. This is a situation that needs to be addressed in this county. It’s ridiculous, we live in the 21st century. The fact is, this is a danger to every single person in this county. Just because it hasn’t happened to anyone in here, doesn’t mean it can’t.

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