DALEVILLE – By the end of the year, an estimated 1,400 Botetourt County residents should be connected to reliable, high speed Internet, enabling rural households to have access to educational, health and business information as never before.
During the Sept. 22 Board of Supervisors meeting, county officials announced that about half of the approximate $6 million received under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, known as CARES, will go towards new broadband projects. In 2017, a county study found less than three-quarters of homes in Botetourt County have access to high speed Internet. By allotting $2.9 million of the CARES Act funding, homes in various parts of the county should be connected within months.
“The areas impacted are all across the county. Much of the fiber-to-the-home will be available in the western part of the county, mostly in Craig-Botetourt’s service area. Lumos [Networks] will also have some in the area south of Buchanan. The wireless broadband connectivity is planned to be available from towers at Exit 162 south of Buchanan and at Blue Ridge Park in Blue Ridge,” explained Cody Sexton, assistant to the county administrator.
Valley District Supervisor and Chairman of the Botetourt County Broadband Commission Mac Scothorn said the money enables the county to connect about 80 percent of homes with reliable, speedy Internet.
Connecting more homes will help end the digital divide. A 2019 Pew Charitable Trust survey found rural residents go online less frequently than their urban and suburban counterparts. Roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of adults who live in rural communities told Pew they use the Internet on at least a daily basis, compared with more than eight-in-ten of those in suburban (86 percent) or urban (83 percent) areas. Meanwhile, 15 percent of rural adults said they never go online, compared with less than one-in-ten of those who live in urban communities (9 percent) and those who live in the suburbs (6 percent).
In a separate survey the Center conducted in 2018, adults who live in rural areas were more likely to day that getting access to high-speed Internet is a major problem in their local community: 24 percent, compared with 13 percent of urban adults and 9 percent of suburban adults. In contrast, a majority of adults say that high-speed Internet is not a major problem in their local community. Similar rates of concern about access to high-speed Internet are shared by rural adults in both lower- and higher-income households, as well as by those with various levels of educational attainment.
Since the county issued its first telecommunications interest survey in the fall of 2017, officials have been working to prioritize broadband access. In March 2018, the Botetourt County Broadband Commission was formed and, by the fall, the BOCO Summit, a strategy and innovation summit where industry experts spoke on a wide array of possible strategies and solutions for the county, was held. In 2019, the county hired Sandy Terry, a well-known technology consultant, to help define and prioritize local project priorities and grant application opportunities. At the meeting, Scothorn said the county plans to hold a broadband summit for residents possibly this year or early 2021.
County Administrator Garry Larrow called the development “transformative for this community,” adding without the CARES Act funding it would have taken many years of additional work to bring the county up to 80 percent broadband connected.
“Broadband is top of mind for our entire community,” Larrowe said. “During these challenging times, access and affordability are more critical considerations than ever before, but we’re making the right moves and starting to really reap the reward,” he said.
Board Chairman Billy Martin described connecting the county to broadband is a process, a timely process. “While so many are complaining about the state of rural broadband, we’re not sitting back. We’re doing something about it. It’s not a quick fix like we all would enjoy, but we’re really getting there, one strategic step at a time,” he said.
Over the last few years, Botetourt County has made improvement in broadband connectivity securing $760,000 in Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant funds and attracting multiple new broadband providers to the area, county officials said. While the county does not directly build telecommunications infrastructure, it has worked closely with new and existing service providers to drive new investment directly to the areas that need coverage the most. Using a 2019 strategic plan, officials are making “measurable strides and incrementally improving Internet access, speed and reliability county-wide,” according to a press released issued by the Board of Supervisors.
Also, at the meeting, the supervisors officially declared Oct. 5-11 Botetourt Broadband Week to celebrate the county’s progress and connectivity. The aim is to raise awareness of the county’s efforts to enhance broadband access across Botetourt. “While there is still much to be done, we wanted to take the time to reflect on the tremendous progress our community has made over the last three years,” Scothorn said. “It’s incredible that we have developed strategies and partnerships that will successfully connect nearly 1,400 new homes and businesses by the end of the calendar year.”
A representative from the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo) presented the Board of Supervisors with an Achievement Award for its broadband deployment strategy. “Rural broadband deployment is one of the most difficult challenges of our era,” Chris McDonald from VACo said. “Botetourt has been a shining example of how systematic progress leads to measurable impact and community benefit.”