Schools, library plan major internet upgrade

Project should more than triple speed of service

A small — but important — slice of Rappahannock County will soon be getting a big boost in its broadband connection.

The county’s school district and its library have signed an agreement with Shentel, a telecommunications company based in Shenandoah County, to significantly upgrade the speed and bandwidth of their internet service. Preliminary work has already begun on the project, with the goal of having the faster fiber optic connection up and running by July 1.

The deal is the culmination of an effort by Robin Bolt — the school district’s executive director of administrative services — to bolster the schools’ broadband service so it can keep up with the growing importance of an online connection in education. Rappahannock is one of only six school districts in the state without a fiber optic link to the internet.

“This is the 21st century and our kids learn differently than we did,” said Bolt. “There’s so much out there that we’ve only been able to do in limited amounts because we haven’t had the network to support it.”

The new project should more than triple the speed of the school district’s internet service to 500 mbps (megabits per second.)

Late last year, Bolt approached David Shaffer, director of the Rappahannock County Public Library, to see if he would team up with her to negotiate a deal for a fiber optic connection. By joining together, they would be able to reduce their costs.

Shaffer was happy to comply, and thanks to a bequest of more than $1 million last year from Mary Rudacille, a long-time library patron, he felt he could commit to partnering with the school district. He knew the library needed to ratchet up its broadband service. It has become a go-to spot for county residents without a reliable internet connection.

It’s not unusual for people to park out front so they can tap into the library’s Wifi signal. “You drive by at night and you see people up here in the parking lot. You come in the morning before we open and there are people sitting in cars out there,” Shaffer said. “I’m sure we have library users that I’ve never met. People tell me that they use our Wifi all the time, and I think some of them have never come in the front door.”

After the March 2 windstorm that knocked out power and phone service all over the county, Shaffer said people began flowing into the library, laptops in hand. Some needed to report outages, others to do business. In such situations, it’s especially important that the library serves their needs, Shaffer said.

“Once you offer the service,” he added, “you have to provide consistency. The biggest benefit of this deal is not just speed, but also reliability.”

Shaffer said the library will need to spend roughly $20,000 to upgrade its infrastructure to accommodate the high-speed connection, although the cost ultimately will be reduced through the Federal Communications Commission’s “E-rate” discount available to schools and libraries to help pay for internet access. That same program will lower the fee the library and school district will each pay to about $600 a month, according to Bolt.

In addition to the library, elementary school, high school and school district’s administration building, the enhanced broadband service will also be provided to the Visitors Center, next door to the library. The building’s second floor is now home to the county administrator’s office.

Bolt explained that Shentel, formally known as the Shenandoah Telecommunications Company, submitted a lower bid for the project than Comcast, the only other bidder. Shentel now provides high-speed broadband service to more than two dozen rural school districts in Virginia and neighboring states. The company is a Sprint affiliate and owns and operates the Sprint wireless network in the western half of Virginia and parts of six other states.

Ed McKay, the company’s senior vice president of wireline and engineering, said Shentel would, in the future, be willing to extend the fiber optic connection to businesses along Route 211 and in the Town of Washington if there’s sufficient demand. It would not be able to provide the service to residential customers.

Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan said the prospect of businesses in the town getting access to much faster broadband is “wonderful news.” If a number of them make the investment, he said, it could boost connectivity in Washington.

“It would be great to make Wifi accessible throughout the town,” he said. “That’s one of my goals — that if you’re sitting on a bench on Gay Street, you’ll be able to get Wifi.”

For her part, Robin Bolt said she’s excited to see her commitment to bring high-speed broadband to the schools come to fruition.

“Think about all the educational apps that are there for kids now. There are so many new ways to help them learn,” she said. “And in college now, everything is done digitally. This can help our kids get ready for college.

“The technology is not teaching the kids. It’s a tool the teachers can use. I just think this would be beneficial to everyone.”

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About Randy Rieland 27 Articles
Randy Rieland was a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 20 years, including 12 years as senior editor for The Washingtonian magazine. He also has more than 20 years of experience in digital media, including serving as SVP of Digital Media for the Discovery Channel. He and his wife, Carol, have owned a home off Tiger Valley Road for more than 10 years.