How topography, density and chance combined to limit local connection choices

The series

This is the first in a three-part series of reports.

Part 2 (Aug. 4): Rappahannock leaders in education, public safety, business and environment weigh in on how cellphone and internet connections have become critical to their work.

Part 3 (Aug. 18): What steps could Rappahannock take to become more connected? How some other rural communities in Virginia and elsewhere are dealing with cellphone and broadband challenges.

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.

Five years ago, when Rappahannock County’s Board of Supervisors approved a plan from AT&T to build three new cellphone towers and add antennas to two other ones owned by Sprint, it seemed as if the county was about to take a step forward in shrinking its dead zone — the sections with little or no cell phone or internet broadband service.

John McCarthy, Rappahannock’s administrator for the past 28 years before his retirement last month, certainly thought so. By his estimate, AT&T’s project would have provided coverage to about another 20 percent of the county’s households, particularly in areas west of Sperryville and along U.S. 522 toward Culpeper.

Not everyone was happy with what AT&T had in mind. At a public hearing, some residents raised concerns about the potential health impact of cell towers emanating radio waves. Others felt the supervisors should pressure AT&T to change the design of its towers to make them less obtrusive amidst Rappahannock’s rolling beauty.

But the response was muted compared to the firestorm that had erupted 10 years earlier when Sprint first proposed erecting seven towers so tall they would need to be topped with blinking lights. After much back and forth, Sprint scaled back its plans. It replaced three of the towers with shorter “stealth” silos and another with a fake tree. It also lowered the height of the three other poles.

What is the Foothills Forum?

Foothills Forum is an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit supported by the Rappahannock County community tackling the need for more fact-based, in-depth coverage of countywide issues. The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other reporting projects.
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“The AT&T hearings were much less contentious,” McCarthy remembers. “I put it down to two things — the increasing ubiquity of cell phones in people’s lives and the increasing concern about late-night breakdowns on the side of the road. The same time cell phones were becoming common, pay phones were disappearing.

“So the board gave AT&T the go-ahead. For good or ill, at the time it was felt we needed to do this.”

But those towers never happened. Faced with an antitrust lawsuit from the Justice Department, AT&T abandoned a planned merger with T-Mobile — a decision that cost the company an estimated $4 billion in penalties it agreed to pay if the deal couldn’t be completed. Projects like the one in Rappahannock no longer made economic sense, given how relatively few customers the company would gain.

Access for fewer than half the households

The result is that today cell and broadband service in Rappahannock is not much different than it was 15 years ago. During that time, however, those services have become an increasingly essential part of daily life, whether it’s about teaching students, running a business, managing personal health or just juggling a social calendar. For residents of Rappahannock, it raises the question of how to balance a longstanding commitment to a rural identity and the risk of falling out of step with the world outside its boundaries. No one has precise figures, but McCarthy, who played a central role in efforts to enhance those services, estimates that fewer than half of the county’s households have access to broadband, and fewer than 40 percent have cell service in their homes, a number that drops lower during the months when signals are blocked by trees full of leaves.

That limited coverage concerns a lot of home and business owners in Rappahannock, judging from the response to the recent countywide survey commissioned by the Foothills Forum and conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research (CSR).  Internet service was the top area of concern among those who responded to the survey, with 81 percent saying it’s important. Cell service was next on the list.

Some, however, say those results should be taken with a grain of salt. “The fact that those two issues were on top may be a reflection of who responded to the survey,” said county supervisor Chris Parrish. “I think a lot of people who have been here all their lives may not have bothered to fill it out.”  Added supervisor Ron Frazier: “We’re aren’t opposed to bringing in broadband.  I just don’t want to use tax dollars when there’s such a split between people who want it and people who don’t.”

It’s true that the dynamics of rural cell service and broadband have changed dramatically since Sprint spent well over $1 million of its own money to erect those stealth silos and poles 15 years ago. Private companies are no longer interested in making those kinds of investments, given their slight returns. Today, the onus is on local governments to pinpoint their needs, map out a strategy, and more often than not, spend public money to build at least some of the necessary infrastructure.

It’s also true that being connected — or not — is affecting daily life at an accelerating pace. “This is a very different world, and a different discussion from even just five years ago,” said Jason Brady, vice president at the Union Bank & Trust, and president of Businesses of Rappahannock. “Maybe not in Rappahannock, but outside of our beloved county; we cannot deny that any longer.”

The great challenge

A cell phone and broadband timeline

1990: Adelphia Communications—later purchased by Comcast and Time Warner—installs cable lines along Rt. 522 south from Front Royal through Flint Hill to Washington, then east to Amissville and west for parts of Sperryville.  The main purpose is to provide cable TV access, but it also becomes the best source of broadband internet service in the county.

1996: Congress passes the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the purpose of deregulating and opening up the communications industry to more competition. The law also prohibits local municipalities from blocking the construction of proposed cell towers based on health and safety concerns.

2000: Sprint proposes construction of seven cell towers so tall they would require lights. But after county officials and residents strongly object, Sprint revises its plan, recommending that three of the towers be replaced with “stealth” silos and another with a fake tree. Three additional monopoles would be erected between Amissville and Ben Venue, including one behind the Amissville Fire and Rescue Station. County supervisors approved the new proposal.

2007:  As part of its first formal effort to facilitate expanded broadband service, the county appoints a Broadband Initiative Committee. Its report recommends that the county ask Embarq if additional DSL service can be extended from a phone “wire center” in Flint Hill. The cost, however, was determined to be too high. The county also amends its zoning provisions regarding wooden poles to allow them to be used for providing wireless broadband service.

January/February 2011:  County supervisors approve a proposal by AT&T to erect three new cell towers west of Washington, one in Sperryville, another at the high school, and the third off Rt. 522 in Boston. Each would be at least 190 feet tall. The company also proposes adding its own antennas to the existing Sprint towers in Amissville and Ben Venue.

December 2011:  Faced with a lawsuit by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T drops its plans to purchase T-Mobile. The failed merger attempt costs AT&T an estimated $4 billion. The company abandons the part of its plan calling for new cell towers in Rappahannock County.

January 2015: The Rappahannock County School Board rejects a plan by Community Wireless Services to erect a monopole at the high school and then lease space on the pole to cell service providers.

July 2015: A “Broadband Forum,” sponsored by the county and the Greater Piedmont Association of Realtors, is held at Rappahannock County High School, with the goal of raising awareness of how increasingly dependent agriculture, health care and tourism have become on broadband access.

December 2015: County supervisors approve a proposal by T-Mobile to add an antenna to the Sprint fake silo along Rt. 211 and opposite Washington.

June 2016: A U.S. Court of Appeals panel of judges rules that broadband should be considered a utility as essential as phone service and electricity, and not a luxury that doesn’t need close supervision.

“It’s becoming a basic need for public safety, health care and education,” said Katie Heritage, deputy administrator in Fauquier County (pop. 68,782), where this spring supervisors appointed a broadband advisory committee that includes county residents and representatives of the business community, and allocated $60,000 to develop a strategic broadband plan. Meanwhile, in Culpeper County (pop. 49,432) , a consultant hired through a $75,000 grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, just finished a survey to get a better idea of who doesn’t have broadband access, who does, and how they see themselves using it now and in the future. In Orange County (pop. 35,385), supervisors have voted unanimously to create a county broadband authority. They’re also looking at helping to fund installation of fiber optic cable and erecting poles that could be used for the county’s public safety network, but also by wireless broadband providers, and cell phone companies, which could lease space on them.

Rappahannock (pop. 7,378), however, has long prided itself on not keeping up with its neighbors’ spiraling growth, and instead remaining a haven of unblemished charm. In truth, many of the qualities that keep the county unique also make it unappealing or particularly difficult for private service providers — low population density (only 26 people per square mile), rolling hills and protruding mountains, heavy tree cover, the absence of water towers, which are often used for mounting antennas or wireless broadband transmitters.

Even those who would benefit from more reliable broadband and cell service worry about what else it might bring. “The lack of these things has hurt our business. We’ve lost some sales,” said Rick Kohler, who with his wife Kaye, heads up Kohler Realtors.

“But I can see how bringing these in would make it easier to live here and could end up bringing more development,” added Kohler, who’s also president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). “There are unintended consequences to everything. If we can somehow preserve what we have and still change, that would be ideal.”

Therein lies the great challenge. But it’s doable, insists Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Engineering, a Kensington, Md., consulting firm. As someone who helps municipalities get wired, Hovis is a big believer in the positive impact of good broadband service. She says her experience has shown her it can be a valuable asset for communities wanting to build their futures around small businesses and people working from home.

“I certainly understand the hesitation about not wanting to spoil what is special about rural communities,” Hovis said. “But having decent broadband doesn’t mean the Holiday Inn is going to be moving in. It can be an alternative to the kind of growth you don’t want.”

Expanded cell and broadband service could also affect a way in which the county is already changing. Its  population is getting older—the average age is now close to 40. Another broadband consultant, Andrew Cohill, whose firm, Design Nine, is based in Blacksburg, contends that expanding coverage in the county could help slow that trend. It could, he said, make Rappahannock feel more welcoming to a generation that has come to rely on the internet and cell phones for everything from following the news to getting directions to planning their social lives.

“I worked with one Virginia county and they told me they were losing all their young people,” said Cohill. “And we had all these meetings, but in the end their position was that they wanted young people to stay, but they didn’t want to change. I told them to pick one. Because you’re not going to have both.”

A case in point: Efforts to hire an intern for the Rappahannock News were complicated by the fact that students lost interest when they were told they would likely have limited cell phone service during the summer.

‘Nibbling around the edges’

Perhaps no one appreciates the social, economic and political complexities of Rappahannock’s situation more than McCarthy, the longtime county administrator. He has dealt with the clear disinterest of the big service providers, the skittishness about investing public money in communications infrastructure — particularly given how quickly the technology can change — and the difficulty of getting grants because of Rappahannock’s relatively high average income compared to other rural counties. He also understands how strongly people here feel about preserving the county’s natural beauty, and their anxiety over what embracing more technology could do to that delicate balance.

The internet and you

How do you use the internet? Weigh in with this week’s RappNews Poll.

Still, he admits he is frustrated that for a decade and a half now, the county has been able to only “nibble around the edges” in addressing its cell phone and broadband issues. And he worries about another aspect of the aging populace. As a member of the Fauquier Hospital Board of Trustees, McCarthy has seen impressive advances in emergency medicine, how, with a reliable internet connection, EMTs can send critical medical data directly to a doctor in an ER, and then be guided to begin treatment in the ambulance.

“The benefits of being able to provide that kind of treatment are obvious,” said McCarthy. “We’re not talking about your kid being able to spend eight hours a night playing World of Warcraft.

“It’s not just a convenience. Increasingly, this is going to be a concern — particularly with our aging population. This is public health and safety we’re talking about.”

Discussing the issues

Meet the reporter: Join Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News for a special Fourth (Estate) Friday gathering next Friday (July 29) at 9 a.m. at Tula’s Restaurant & Bar in Washington. Reporter Randy Rieland will be on hand to discuss his reporting about cellphone and internet service in the county.

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