A new, cutting edge tool for studying broadband coverage was unveiled last Friday during the Botetourt County Broadband Commission meeting.
Sandie Terry, president of Rural Broadband Consulting, LLC, was hired by the county to complete the report following last year’s broadband summit. Terry, who has 10 years’ worth of experience as a local government chief information officer, was on site at the Circuit Courthouse to walk theBroadband Commission through the report. According to the report, if the county follows through with the plans that were outlined, up to 80 percent of the areas in the county that currently do not have broadband access could soon be covered. The reason for the excitement surrounding Terry’s report is because unlike other reports, the one she developed for Botetourt County is both “comprehensive and interactive.”
“I really feel as if Sandie’s work has set a new bar and will be seen as the model for best practices in the future with expansion of broadband into areas like ours,” Gary Larrowe, county administrator, said in an email before the meeting. Larrowe explained that the buzz surrounding the report prior to its release was so intense that he even received a phone call from a man in California who wanted to express his excitement about it.
The first part of the report identifies the lack of broadband access in certain parts of the county, whereas the second half of the report includes recommendations for how the county can work to address the problems. Broadband is defi ned by the Federal Communications Commission as consisting of a minimum of 25Mbps (megabits per second) download and 3Mbps upload. Underscoring the increased need for broadband access is the uptick in job growth over the past few years. According to Terry’s report, the county experienced a 15 percent growth in jobs between 2015 and 2017. Currently 4,400 locations in the county, including almost 400 businesses, are without broadband access. One of the charts included in the study indicates that 74.4 percent of households in the county have 25Mbps/3Mbps or greater, which means that Botetourt is in line with access rates for surrounding counties. Access rates for surrounding counties are as follows:
• Roanoke: 97.2 percent
• Alleghany: 92.5 percent
• Rockbridge: 64.7 percent
• Bedford: 56.9 percent
• Craig: 55.8 percent
According to the report, the reason why the access rate for Alleghany County is so high is because the county pursued a fiber build out in 2011. The recommendations in the report are presented in multiple phases, which represent different parts of the county and are demand driven, Phase One: This phase represents the western part of the county.
• Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative (CBEC) has committed to provide up to $2 million of matching funds for fi ber deployment to its members in the county.
• The county and CBEC are partnering on an application for the 2019 Virginia Telecommunications Infrastructure (VATI) grant for one area within the fi rst phase.
• If all CBEC planned areas within the first phase are funded, fiber broadband service will be available at 1,321 locations, including 97 businesses, which are currently unserved.
• If funded, the build for the first part of the CBEC area will begin in May and will be completed within one year.
• The areas not covered under the fi rst part of the CBEC area are dependent upon the securing of additional funding. If funded, the build for those areas will be completed by 2021.
• Lumos Networks received federal funding through the Alternative Connect America Cost Model (A-CAM) for rate-of-return carriers for eligible locations in Virginia.
• With the funding, Lumos will be able to complete an all fi ber upgrade, which will allow a minimum of 100 Mbps download.
• 526 locations, including 29 businesses, are eligible for the Lumos upgrade. Phase Two: This phase represents the central and southeastern part of the county.
• There are approximately 685 locations eligible for the Lumos A-CAM upgrades in the area targeted by this phase. Phase Three: This phase represents the eastern part of the county.
• BARC Electric Cooperative participated with a consortium of electric cooperatives that sought funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America program through the 2018 Reverse Auction and received $1.1 million to expand fiber service to the area covered by Phase Three.
• BARC estimates that the build will be completed by the end of 2020 and will cover the entire Phase Three area. Phase Four: This phase represents the southern part of the county.
• If CBEC is funded through the 2019 VATI grant program, a portion of its fi ber build from Phase One will serve the northern unserved areas of the Phase Four area. If awarded the 2019 VATI funding, the northern area of Phase Four will be built by the spring of 2020.
• 43 locations in the southern portion of the Phase Four area are also eligible for Lumos ACAM funded upgrades. Phase Five: This phase represents the northern part of the county.
• 243 unserved locations are eligible for the Federal Communications Commission ACAM funding that Lumos received. Other recommendations included: Improve utilization
• Even though the county’s “take rate,” how many households would subscribe to fi xed broadband if available, is better than other rural areas, the report recommends that it should work to improve the fi gure. The take rate is based on household income, education attainment and age.
• The report says the county should also work with libraries and civic organizations to improve digital literacy and relevancy among seniors due to the fact that the largest factor on the county’s take rate is age. Issue RFP
• The report also recommended that the county issue a request for proposal (RFP) for the areas of the county that aren’t currently covered under the multiphase process. Construct a fi ber WAN
• Because the county is a large consumer of broadband bandwidth, the report suggested that it should consider constructing a fi ber widearea- network (WAN) in order to aggregate the demand across multiple facilities, which would ultimately lower the costs.
“In my opinion, the report provided for you is far superior to the tons of pages I have seen prepared for other counties,” Heather Burnett Gold, former president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, said to Gary Larrowe, county administrator, in an email after reviewing the report. “By creating an interactive document with current capabilities fully disclosed and using validated industry indicators to estimate what is needed and the potential impact of such improvements in broadband, Ms. Terry has given you much more than a report, she has provided you with a road map forward.” Governor Ralph Northam announced back in December that he would be proposing a $50 million investment in the state’s broadband infrastructure for the 2020 fi cal year.
“Broadband Internet is inarguably a necessity for participation in a 21st century economy, and many Virginians have been left without quality access for too long,” Northam said at the time. “By ending this disconnect, we can better attract and support business and entrepreneurship, educate all Virginia students, expand access to cost-saving telehealth services, and more. We have an opportunity to accelerate our progress on expanding access to quality broadband Internet – this budget refl ects the priority my administration will place on reaching this important goal.” The report is available on the Botetourt County website under the Board of Supervisors tab. Additionally, a broadband survey is available for county residents and businesses to take. According to the survey, “The information collected will be used to help inform the buildout of broadband networks.” The survey asks participants to provide their address as well as their expectations for Internet service or broadband.