Contributing Writer

It’s like the 1930s all over again, when rural areas found themselves drooling over big cities that had harnessed electricity while the folks on the farms went without.

People shook off that jealousy, though, and created electric cooperatives and found other ways to bring light to the darkness. That’s where we are today in the USA with Internet Access, according to James Baller. He was the keynote speaker at The Rural Broadband Technology Solutions Summit held last week at Greenfield Education and Training Center. The summit, put on by the Botetourt County Broadband Advisory Commission, lasted two days and brought in more than 40 speakers knowledgeable on the legal, economic, and monetary issues inherent in trying to bring high-speed internet service to an agricultural community.

Over 100 people participated in the event, according to Arleen Boyd, a member of the county’s Broadband Commission who spearheaded the initiative. Baller indicated that broadband in rural areas will come at the behest of local governments. “Local governments are trusted by the public in ways many other public institutions are not,” he said. However, since by law localities cannot supply broadband and compete with private industries, the solution is to create public-private partnerships with utilities that want to assist underserved areas. Internet has become “essential to modern life,” Baller said, much like electricity. However, it took 50 years for the darker corners of the US to have electrical service.

“We don’t have 50 years to wait to bring affordable, effective Internet services to smaller communities.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which uses a “oneshoe fits all approach,” oversees the Internet.

“It’s wrong,” he said, noting that the issue is much too complex for such black and white rules. Boyd and Valley District Supervisor Mac Scothorn, who is chairman of the Botetourt County Broadband Advisory Commission, both called the summit a huge success. “A good third of the participants were known experts,” Boyd said. “We also had providers, equipment manufacturers, distributors, consultants, and political staff representatives” from multiple area localities.

As for how this summit might help Botetourt, Boyd said bringing together this “who’s who” of rural broadband allowed members to understand the challenges and barriers they face in trying to bring better Internet to Botetourt. They also learned of multiple solutions and possibilities. “Rural broadband is hard because there is no standard blueprint,” Boyd said. “We are now much better prepared to move forward to forge a path toward the objective of fast, affordable Internet access to all areas of the county.”

Scothorn could not contain his enthusiasm about the summit during a telephone conversation. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said. The Broadband Commission met again Friday morning to discuss the summit and possible actions. “We made contact with several individuals who will point us in the right direction,” Scothorn said. “One of the things we’re taking a look at now is how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are we spending to send children to school. We need to keep them in our county. Broadband is part of that solution, so that we have a workforce that keeps on increasing and we are increasing our technology skills,” Scothorn said.

“Technology changes so fast, we need to see if we can change fast enough. We need to start on this now. We’re already behind,” he said. To do this, the Broadband Commission has already starting looking into grants and seeking out individual consultants who can assist the county in obtaining the needed services, Scothorn said. He noted that broadband could be brought into the county in a variety of ways, such as fiber lines already in place, or through air, which many people are already familiar with through their cell phones. “There will be further meetings and discussions,” Scothorn said.

“The public will be notified of more. I want to be sure they’re buying into this situation, but I think we have a lot of community support.” Scothorn said he thought public-private partnerships would be the way to go. “We don’t know how it is going to be,” he said. “We need to take a look at all avenues.” Last week’s summit, he said, offered much-needed direction. “I am excited. I want it done. I want to make it happen and make everybody happy,” Scothorn said.

County Administrator Gary Larrowe was more cautious. “It is very evident that there has to be a lot of preplanning before you end up delivering services,” he told members of the Economic Development Authority Friday. “Hopefully we’ll end up with a good thing and broadband deployment throughout the county.” Scothorn noted that bringing broadband in would help the county in myriad ways.

“A study shows there are a lot of houses out there that have home businesses,” he said. Lack of Internet access can affect real estate sales, too. “People love this area, they think it’s beautiful, but they don’t have Internet.” That can be a deterrent for some people, he said, especially families who need Internet access in this age to properly educate their children. “If the only place they can get Internet is the library, that’s hard,” Scothorn said. The Broadband Commission will continue to follow up with speakers and others who offered their knowledge and expertise at the summit, Boyd said.

Folks in the county who have Internet services will be able to view the summit at the BoCo Summit YouTube channel (check for links in the near future). Boyd also encouraged the community to engage and share their Botetourt Internet connectivity experiences with the county at bocosummit@botetourtva. gov.