By Aila Boyd

The Botetourt County Broadband Commission held a meeting last Friday to discuss its next steps following an interactive study that Sandie Terry, president of Rural Broadband Consulting, LLC, presented at last month’s meeting.

It was noted that feedback about the study has largely been positive and that other localities are transitioning to interactive models as well.

Dr. Mac Scothorn, chairman of the commission, noted that because county residents are hearing a lot about the commission’s efforts through local media, they are starting to grow restless and are expecting results immediately. He said that they’re expecting a “flip of a switch.”

Despite expectations, he added that “it is unbelievable how quickly we’re moving.”

Garry Larrowe, county administrator, echoed his sentiment by saying that the commission has been quite “aggressive.”

The commission’s goal is to be “fully fiber” by 2022. If the goal is met, that would mean that Botetourt County will be the first “fully fiber” county in Virginia.

The phases for meeting the commission’s goal are as follows:

Phase One:

Phase One will span from May 2019 to July 2021. It will be completed by the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative and Lumos. The Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative portion of the phase will be broken down into three components. The first component will extend from May 2019 to May 2020. The second component will require $780,000 in funding and will be completed in 2020. The third component will require $473,000 in funding and will be completed in the middle of 2021. Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative will be investing $2 million during the phase. The Lumos portion of Phase One, costing $1.7 million, will be federally funded.

Phase Two:

Phase Two will span from April 2019 to December 2021. It will be completed by Lumos and a yet unknown company. An RFP (request for proposal) will be issued to determine what company will be used. The rough estimate to fund the RFP is $3 million. The Lumos portion of the phase will target 685 homes and will receive $2.283 million in federal funding.

Phase Three:

Phase Three has received $1.1 million in federal funding. It will be completed by BARC Electric Cooperative between August 2019 and December 2020. It is expected that there will be several locations in the Phase Three block that will still be without service.

Phase Four:

Phase Four will span from January 2021 to February 2022. It will be completed by Lumos and a yet unknown company. An RFP will be issued. The Lumos portion will cost $10,000 and will be federally funded.

Phase Five:

Phase Five will span from January 2022 and September 2022. It will be completed by Lumos. The $810,000 required for the phase will come from federal funding.

Terry noted that roughly $7 million is needed to fully fund Botetourt County’s broadband efforts.

“It’s going to be important that we go after all of the funding opportunities that are available,” she said.

Once RFPs have been issued and proposals have been received, Terry explained that each member of the commission will review and score them independently.

She noted that RFPs will allow the commission to “leverage the innovation of the private sector.”

Michael Lockaby, county attorney, noted that he prefers when RFPs are open for a short period of time. He explained that by limiting the window, companies aren’t able to invest as many resources into their proposals, which in the end could be a waste of time and money if plans change or their proposal isn’t chosen.

Although the idea of having the RFPs be “technology agnostic” was discussed, it was ultimately decided that the RFPs will specify fiber. Then, once the proposals have come in, the commission will be able to move forward accordingly. For any areas that aren’t covered in the RFPs, the commission might “consider creative solutions.” One of the areas that the commission is already expecting the need for a “creative solution” has to do with railroad tracks.

The Board of Supervisors has approval over the issuance of RFPS.

Terry added that the timeline for all of the phases will ultimately come down to the proposals received due to the fact that the various companies may already have other commitments.

Last month, the commission asked county residents and businesses to share information about “their need for Internet service/broadband.”

Over 200 people responded during the first two days of the survey.

Underscoring the work of the commission, anonymous responses to the survey were shared at the meeting.

Here is an excerpt from one of the responses: “The only Internet we have available is satellite at a cost of $166.23 per month for 50 gigs of broadband. This is not enough Internet for my two children (a 5th grader and a 9th grader) to complete homework/school projects/research. We are in desperate need of more/better choices. We do not even have cell coverage at our house. I feel like that in itself is a desperate need in this day and age.”

Another response read in part: “We have Internet at our residence, but it is extremely slow. This makes video conference calls and using multiple devices difficult to do. Our expectations are not being met and we feel we have no options because of the limited Internet companies in the area.”

A different response explained that they “have to drive 23 miles one way to get to where there’s enough Internet to do any business of any sorts online.”

The broadband survey is still available. It is located under the Board of Supervisors tab on the county website.