With Rappahannock’s broadband gap more exposed than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) is looking to ratchet up its efforts to do something about it.
At its meeting next Monday, the BOS could approve the creation of a county broadband authority, an independent corporation that could enter into partnerships with private internet providers. The authority would also be able to apply for federal and state grants, which isn’t an option for the county’s existing broadband committee.
For the past four years, that committee has served an information-gathering and advisory role for the county as it has explored how Rappahannock can address its significant broadband limitations. It’s been a difficult undertaking, given the challenging topography and relatively small number of potential customers here.
“We kept hearing the same story over and over: ‘You’re too small for us,’” said Margaret Bond, a broadband committee member who’s been involved in expediting the transition to a broadband authority. She said the authority would allow the county to take more concrete steps in working directly with outside partners. That would include contributing financially, which is why getting access to grant money is critical.
In the past, the BOS has been reluctant to commit county tax dollars into broadband projects, but in September, it supported funneling at least $175,000 to Piedmont Broadband from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. It turned out, however, that the money could not be passed along to a private company that didn’t provide services directly to the local government.
“I think some of the feeling was that we lost that opportunity so let’s get this broadband authority done,” said BOS member Debbie Donehey, who’s also on the broadband committee.
“To me, the pandemic has put the spotlight on the need for better broadband,” she added, “especially when it comes to wanting the children in the county to be on the same playing field as other children.”
One potential broadband partner is the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), which earlier this year contacted county officials to see if they wanted to be part of a project that could expand fiber optic service in Rappahannock. The BOS pledged $100,000 to show its interest, but such an undertaking would be quite costly, and likely would be contingent on the REC receiving a sizable grant through a new Federal Communications Commission program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. A decision on the grant isn’t expected until early next year.
Bond said that the broadband committee has also been meeting with other internet access providers, in the event a partnership with the REC doesn’t materialize. She thinks the first step in any future project would be developing a design plan that would include a more precise analysis of how many potential subscribers are in the county.
She also believes a buildout of broadband service would be done incrementally and would likely need to be a hybrid of fiber optic and wireless internet connections.
“We’d need to be flexible,” Bond said. “Fiber can go a lot of places, but not everywhere in Rappahannock. So you’d count on wireless service in the really hard-to-reach areas down in the hollows or up in the mountains.”
The broadband authority will have a board comprised of all five county supervisors, but two could resign and be replaced by private citizens, ideally with some technical expertise.
By Randy Rieland — For Foothills Forum