As Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) Broadband Project Manager Jean Plymale told the audience at Thursday evening’s Community Broadband Assessment for Rappahannock County, “We can’t go without broadband much longer.”
The question remains how to get it — or as Plymale put it how to “draw service providers to this county, how to entice service providers,” who see little if any profit margin in a topographically challenged county like Rappahannock, with its many hills and hollows, and sparse spread-out population.
Another stumbling block are the Rappahannock residents opposed to any vertical towers. Then there is the extreme cost of deploying a wireline-based broadband service to the relatively few residents spread across wide open spaces.
But press on the county is doing.
Plymale, who recently began advising Rappahannock in its years-long quest for more widespread Internet access, joined county Supervisor John Lesinski and his fellow broadband committee members at the county library to discuss a just-concluded “Broadband Demand Survey” of county residents. Also in attendance were Supervisor Chris Parrish and Supervisor-elect Christine Smith.
There were 890 responses to the survey, representing 716 unique residential addresses (given the county’s 3,273 occupied housing units, 22 percent of households participated in the survey). The majority of respondents were between 55 and 74 years of age, and 86 percent reported having expensive if not unreliable Internet access in their homes (47 percent satellite, 14 percent cable, 13 percent DSL, and 13 percent fixed wireless).
Fourteen percent of respondents, on the other hand, reported having no Internet, while 12 percent said they would subscribe were it available. Twenty-one percent said they have K-12 students at home, with 12 percent of those school parents having no Internet whatsoever.
In addition, almost 3 out of 5 K-12 students, the survey found, depend on “inadequate, expensive and/or unreliable services.”
In fact, 70 percent of all residential respondents replied that their Internet service is anywhere from inadequate to unreliable.
At the same time, 177 Rappahannock “businesses” completed the survey, with 29 percent of them rating their business Internet connection “unacceptable.” Almost every business surveyed — 99 percent — said the Internet is “somewhat or very important” to their business. Only four percent of businesses reported no access to the Internet.
Finally, most respondents said they use the Internet for emailing, followed by surfing the web, online shopping, paying bills and banking, reading news, social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter), telecommuting, video streaming, music streaming, Internet phone calls and video, searching for employment, video games, and finally health and medical related communications.
So what are the next steps?
According to Plymale, whose CIT services are free to the county, they include determining the role that the Rappahannock County government will assume in achieving the goals established by the broadband committee. Those goals and recommendations how to get there will be conveyed by the committee to the county’s Board of Supervisors (BOS).
A requirements document and draft RFP (request for proposal), at the same time, will soon be prepared by the CIT, which will also be presented by the committee to the BOS in order to seek a broadband partner(s).
Three potential locality broadband “partnership” models were presented for consideration by CIT, a nonprofit organization that works to create tactics for bringing broadband services to rural areas such as Rappahannock. CIT also works to improve technologies and services that are already in place, such as at Rappahannock County Public Schools, which paid $35,000 — much of it offset by a 60 percent “E-rate” discount — for one mile of fiber WAN connecting the high school, school board office and elementary school.
(E-rate is the universal service Schools and Library Program that provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable Internet and telecommunications access).
But even with its fiber WAN, the school system’s connection to the commodity Internet (access to the world) is not through an external fiber service but rather through an old, slow copper cable from Comcast.
Rappahannock, sadly, is one of only six school districts in the state without a fiber optic cable hookup, which would provide higher bandwidth among other improvements.
Meanwhile, three partnership models the county could consider include:
1) Locality Shares Assets Only: Some localities do not have the resources (people or money) to bring to a partnership, but they do have assets such as land and rooftops. In these types of partnerships, the locality agrees to share assets and even provide the private partner some “anchor” tenants on their network — government facilities or fire/rescue stations that would buy services from the private partner’s network;
2) Locality Covers Capital Investment: Some localities prefer to make all the capital investments to obtain Broadband, with the private partner bringing their expertise to the table to design, deploy, maintain and operate the network. The locality owns the network and contracts the partner to run it;
3). Locality Invests Some Capital: This model is a blend of the previous two. The locality may share assets and may invest some capital to offset the initial coasts of the network, such as fiber deployment. The private partner would fund the wireless equipment, customer equipment, and all costs to deploy, maintain and operate the network.
The CIT also presented the broadband committee with a list of funding resources, state and federal, which provide everything from grants to broadband infrastructure loans and loan guarantees.
“There is money out there,” Plymale stressed.
Lesinsky says the broadband committee could meet one more time in 2017, and sometime afterward present its findings and recommendations to the BOS.