By Aila Boyd

Sandie Terry, president of Rural Broadband Consulting, LLC, provided members of the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday with an update on her efforts in working with the Broadband Commission to expand broadband coverage throughout the county.

You all have some incredible opportunities in front of you,” Terry said to the supervisors when discussing how the county can work to bridge the “digital divide.”

Before specifically discussing her efforts in Botetourt County, Terry explained that healthcare, education, economic development, and public safety are all impacted by connectivity to broadband.

She noted that the “good news” is that 69 percent of the county now has broadband, which is defined as “25 meg (megabyte) down and three meg up” by the Federal Communications Commission. The served population in the county breaks down along the following lines: 35 percent have fiber, 32 percent have cable, and 2 percent have digital subscriber line (DSL).

According to Terry, 4,891 locations in the county are currently unserved, adding that there are few locations that are underserved, something that is uncommon. “You’re either served or you aren’t served,” she said about broadband coverage in the county. Out of the 4,891 locations that are unserved, 415 are businesses.

Based on data collected through the county’s broadband survey and citizen demand, Terry told the supervisors that citizens of the county have a “pretty loud voice for how much this is costing them and how much it’s impacting their lives.” She added that the schools are also being impacted by the lack of broadband in certain parts of the county.

The reason why we don’t have broadband everywhere and to everyone is because broadband was a service that telecom could sell for a profit,” she said. “Where it wasn’t profitable, they weren’t going.”

Terry went on to discuss ways in which the Broadband Commission is currently working to bridge the “digital divide.”

Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative has committed up to $2 million to build fiber-to-the-home for 1,321 locations, including 97 businesses. An additional $2.1 million will be needed to fund the build.

BARC Electric Cooperative has been federally funded through the Federal Communications Commission Connect America Fund Phase II Reverse Auction. The cooperative will deploy fiber-to-the-home for 468 locations, including 16 businesses.

Lumos Networks has been federally funded by the Federal Communications Commission Alternative Connect America Cost Model to upgrade fiber to 1,497 locations, including 29 businesses.

Of your 31 percent that’s unserved, you’ve got planned initiatives to deliver fiber to 68 percent of those,” Terry said. “Those are opportunities most rural localities don’t get. You’re blessed in that regard.”

Also, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to direct members of the county administration to advertise a PPEA (Public-Private Education Act) for proposals for companies interested in serving the unserved areas that Terry discussed and to allow the Broadband Commission to evaluate and recommend the awarding of contracts to the supervisors.

According to documentation included in the packet for the Board of Supervisors meeting, the PPEA is the legislative framework that enables the county to enter into agreements authorizing private entities to design, construct, improve, maintain, and operate qualifying public construction or infrastructure projects.

Terry illustrated the different between a PPEA and an RFP (request for proposal) by saying that a standard RFP is for buying “widgets” and that they take an “all or nothing approach.” Alternatively, PPEAs allow for the private sector to pick and choose service areas, support multiple partners, support creative financing, and support public-private partnerships.

The PPEA solicitation period will be between 45 and 60 days. After that period of time, members of the Broadband Commission will review and independently score conceptual proposals from various companies. Once the finalists have been selected, interviews and the detailed design phase will occur. At that point, a recommendation will be made to the Board of Supervisors.

The proposed construction pertaining to the PPEA will take place between May of 2020 and December of 2021. The PPEA pertains to Phase Two, 941 addresses, of the plan that Terry created in order to expand broadband to underserved and unserved parts of the county.

Lumos Networks is also part of Phase Two, with 685 addresses covered in its part of the phase.

During the Broadband Commission’s meeting last Friday, Dr. Mac Scothorn, chairman, mentioned that during the county’s visioning retreat, members of the Board of Supervisors identified “worldwide connectivity” as one of nine areas of focus for the county.

The portion of the county’s 2045 vision that addresses worldwide connectivity reads: “High-speed, high-capacity internet connectivity facilitates and supports county business, educational, and cultural relationships around the globe. This access embeds in our county increased opportunity to supply goods and services to anyone anywhere and creates new entrepreneurs, partners, and investors. Residents enjoy more diverse employment opportunities by working for themselves or remotely for companies located anywhere in the world. Tele-health expands resident access to healthcare near and far. Enhanced connectivity provides citizens with new opportunities for entertainment and cultural experiences, bringing the world into the homes of Botetourt.”

The county’s efforts toward broadband expansion recently received national attention after being mentioned in a “Government Technology” article by Zack Quaintance. The magazine covers information technology in the public sector.

In the article, Craig Settles, a national broadband analyst, says that Botetourt County is “among the pacesetters of community broadband networks.”

Lumos Networks representatives Rob Cale, senior director of product and marketing, and David Smith, senior director of technical operations and planning, attended the meeting last Friday in order to give an update on progress that is being made.

Smith explained that Lumos Networks is currently working on three fiber build projects in the county. Areas covered include a section of Craig Creek Road, a section of Springwood Road, and Sprinkle Road. The expansion to those areas is expected to be completed by June. The fiber build has been completed on Flowing Springs Road. In total, the expansion project will provide fiber service of up to one gigabyte speed to 285 addresses.

Future fiber expansions that Smith said are under consideration include Narrow Passage Road, Blue Ridge Turnpike, a section of Springwood Road between Flowing Springs Road and Beaver Dam Road, and Breckinridge Mill Road.

Beth Allen, supervisor of technology for Botetourt County Public Schools, attended the meeting in order to highlight the need for broadband expansion when it comes to education. She explained that all Botetourt County Public Schools students between grades nine through 12 receive Chromebooks, which are “very Internet dependent.” She added that students in the northern portion of the county find it difficult to fully leverage the applications of their Chromebooks because of the large percentage of unserved addresses.

The Broadband Commission’s meeting occurred on the same day that Governor Ralph Northam announced that $758,998 had been awarded as part of the Botetourt Broadband 2019 project through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, providing funding to Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative’s efforts to expand coverage throughout the county.