Broadband in Rappahannock: Where does it go from here?

Some progress, as fiber optic cable reaches county schools, library

By Sara Schonhardt
Foothills Forum

With the library and school district set for a major Internet boost in July, Rappahannock’s Broadband Committee met on Monday to discuss further efforts to expand broadband and cell service to the county and determine whether the committee should restructure to better handle connectivity plans going forward.

Pipe layer Antonio Tolentino works to extend fiber optic cable to Rappahannock’s library, part of a project to bring high-speed Internet to the county’s library and school district. By Sara Schonhardt

The seven-member group hasn’t decided what form a restructured committee would take but agreed that transitioning from a formal supervisory committee to something along the lines of a citizen’s committee could allow them more flexibility in devising ways to better connect the county.

“I’m not a believer of committees in perpetuity,” said John Lesinski, the committee chair and a board supervisor.

“Now that we’ve reached a place where we can take a pause, is this the best structure as we try to move this thing forward? I think that’s what we’re really debating right now. Is there another way to do this that might get us results quicker?”

Lesinski revived a former iteration of the broadband committee in 2016 following a survey by the nonprofit journalism group Foothills Forum that found that limited or nonexistent Internet and cell phone service were two of Rappahannock residents’ main concerns.

Its primary mission has been to determine county residents’ broadband needs and devise recommendations for ways to meet them.

By that measure it has seen some progress.

Telecommunications company Shentel, based in Shenandoah County, is in the final stages of extending fiber optic cable to the library, elementary school, high school and school board administration building, giving a much-needed boost to Rappahannock, currently one of only a handful of school districts in the state without a fiber optic link to the Internet.

The new connection will more than triple the speed of the school district’s current service to 500 mbps (megabits) per second with the ability to scale up an additional 500 megabits in the future.

“I think it will be more than sufficient for our needs,” said Robin Bolt, the school district’s executive director of administrative services.

The school and library will pay reduced monthly fees of around $600 through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program, which provides discounts to help schools and libraries pay for Internet access and has also helped cover the cost to upgrade the infrastructure, said Bolt, who has been working for four years to secure the upgrade.

While the schools and library will serve as anchors for Shentel to enter Rappahannock, committee members have discussed ways to connect businesses and set up town hot spots for visitors and residents.

County Administrator Garrey Curry, who along with Lesinski met recently with Shentel, said the company is considering extending services to cooperative extensions, which could allow other buildings in the county, including the visitor’s center and county administrator’s office to access a fiber connection.

Company executives have previously expressed interest in extending the fiber optic connection to businesses along Route 211 and into the town of Washington if there is significant demand.

“Shentel is very interested in finding out other ways that they can bring high-speed Internet to the villages,” Lesinski said.

Getting high-speed Internet to residential customers remains a challenge for a hilly, rural county like Rappahannock, where the sparse population offers few if any returns for big providers needing to invest in building out infrastructure.

To overcome some of those hurdles, the committee consulted with the Center for Innovative Technology, a non-profit that works to expand broadband services to rural areas.

It also conducted a survey last fall to determine gaps in broadband access and to identify specific community needs for improved broadband service. It found that 70 percent of all residential respondents rated their Internet service as anywhere from inadequate to unreliable.

The survey helped identify the under- and un-served areas of the county and raised awareness about how a lack of connectivity was a public-service issue, Lesinski said.

Committee member Todd Summers understands that connection well. He works as a global health consultant and volunteers at the emergency service in Sperryville, where he often struggles to get a radio signal when he’s away from the station.

At the meeting Monday, committee members discussed a zoning permit application from Community Wireless Services to erect a tower on Woodward Road in Sperryville that would address the need for public safety paging. The tower has faced opposition from some residents who say it’s too close to their homes.

Shentel — a Sprint affiliate that owns and operates the Sprint wireless network in the western half of Virginia — is looking to build up in Sperryville and is reviewing several possible sites, including the CWS, providing some economic incentive for its construction.

“It gets more compelling for Shentel to continue building out in the county if they now have another anchor at Sperryville for a cell tower,” he said.

That progress sits well with a committee formed to not only assess the county’s connectivity needs but also offer a path forward.

“We now have a major provider coming in and may have a third tower in the county and a lot of our goals about increasing public safety and connectivity, whether it’s broadband or cell phone . . . , are things we can point to and say we had a hand in as far as raising awareness,” said Lesinski. “Those are scalable and immediate and short-term goals that this community can all point to and say it’s getting better.”

Committee members agreed that their work is far from over but said they may be more effective in a different formation in part because they’ll be subject to fewer rules governing their ability to gather and discuss issues.

“Right now we’d move a little bit faster and be a little more nimble if we were independent of the board of supervisors,” Summers said.

The committee will prepare a report ahead of its next meeting on what it has accomplished and suggest some next steps and short-term goals, including how it might restructure.

Whatever form the committee takes in the future, Lesinski said, getting residents and area businesses to advocate for improved connectivity remains important.

“How do we maintain the momentum?” he asked. “We’re at the point here where we’ve got to figure that out.”

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 21 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.