On broadband internet availability

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I recently wrote of the assets and some of the challenges that Rural Virginia faces.  This week, I will focus on the issue of access to the internet and the ability to connect to the rest of the world at high speeds.

This is often referred to as broadband. This has been one of the most frustrating challenges that has faced us for years. It is, likewise, one of our greatest opportunities in rural communities. If we can provide true high speed internet, individuals and families can choose to live in areas with fresh air and natural beauty such as ours.

Dial-up service may well have been good enough when all we wanted to do was send an occasional email.  However, the desire for faster speed has grown exponentially over the last decade. If one can work from home, if their children can do research and homework from home, we will be more attractive to many.

Over the last 10 years, I have been convinced that we were on the verge of a breakthrough that would serve our communities.

Each time, the technology or promises of the federal government have not lived up to what we had hoped. Therefore, I am reluctant to get overly excited about the most recent proposals that appear to be on the horizon.  The biggest challenge is the cost of installation in rural areas where the distance between houses limits the return on investment in the equipment needed for investors to make a reasonable return on their investment.

The other is technology changes that leave everyone wondering which equipment is the right investment.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband was created with an investment by the Tobacco Commission and a matching investment from the federal government 15 years ago. It was created as a non-profit company to connect the tobacco region to the major internet centers around the world. It has been extremely successful in providing connections for the data centers in Mecklenburg (H-P Enterprises and Microsoft) as well as other companies in the region.

Mid-Atlantic was not established to provide services to households, but rather to be a partner with providers who would hopefully provide the “last mile” to your house or business.

Regrettably, those last-mile providers have not been as aggressive as we had hoped.

Currently, there are new options that might serve those of us in unserved or underserved areas. The Tobacco Commission is working with Microsoft in a project in Charlotte, Halifax and the Brookneal area of Campbell County.  That is a wireless project that uses the broadcast spectrum that television once used called “white space.” In the coming months, we will see how successful and how well received this is by the public.

Another project is one the electric co-ops are now testing. Prince George Electric Co-op began several months ago. In their test, they offered fiber-optic connections “wired” to co-op members using their existing power lines. After connecting 50 homes, they were so pleased that they are now looking to connect another 500 houses.

Other electric co-ops in our area are likewise considering following the same model.

Other companies will be asking for assistance from the Tobacco Commission. Other technologies are expected to offer new options. The Excede Internet Services company is launching a new satellite in February that will expand their service and service speeds.

Hopefully, all of these options will provide options for our region.

Frank Ruff represents Lunenburg in the state Senate. His email address is Sen.Ruff@verizon.net.