Whether they’re employees working from home, business owners or students slogging through homework, Franklin County residents clamoring for high-speed internet will see a comprehensive broadband plan take shape over the next few months.
The Franklin County Broadband Authority kicked off its first 2019 meeting Jan. 15 with a presentation of broadband strategies from Andrew Cohill of Design Nine, Inc. Design Nine, Inc. is a Blacksburg-based broadband consulting firm selected last year to work with county officials.
Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as internet speeds of a minimum 25 megabytes per second for downloading and 3 mbps for uploading. On average, dial-up internet is 0.25 mbps, DSL is 2 mbps, cellular data runs 10-20 mbps, cable and satellite are 25 mbps and fiber-optic is 100 mbps.
Steven Sandy, Franklin County Director of Planning, told the Board of Supervisors that this first meeting examines government’s role in broadband deployment and presents ideas for how that could play out in Franklin County.
“Ultimately, there will be a broadband plan this county will adopt; a guiding document for how to deploy and go after applications in the future,” Sandy said. He added Cohill will conduct several meetings, bringing back survey data and soliciting feedback from supervisors on their constituents’ needs and concerns.
Cohill said that he’s always felt that government does have a role in broadband infrastructure, comparing it to public-private ventures such as airports and roads.
“Some of the incumbents have tried to convince the public in particular and sometimes legislators that this is best left to the private sector, but there are lots of precedents for local and state governments getting involved and providing appropriate infrastructure for the good of the community,” Cohill said. “All telecommunication, at some level, is a public-private partnership.”
Cohill then outlined basic infrastructure the county could provide, which could be conduit pipes or hand holes (underground boxes), dark fiber cable (unused optical fiber), or wireless towers. He emphasized that the service itself would come from private internet service providers (ISPs).
Franklin County has some towers available, Cohill noted, and fees paid by ISPs to lease space on those towers helps offset maintenance costs. Fiber can also be run from towers to homes and businesses.
Another option is less expensive and less obtrusive utility poles, which in turn can transfer signal wirelessly or through fiber to homes and businesses, Cohill said.
“In Franklin County, we don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this,” Cohill continued. “It’s going to be a combination of technologies.” He pointed out that internet cable service is pretty good at Smith Mountain Lake. DSL service will continue to be adequate for some people, he added. New subdivisions may want to utilize fiber optics. Businesses and residents who work from home are looking for broadband.
“The bandwidth needs to keep growing, which is why the county needs some help,” Cohill said. He said that county surveys conducted about six years ago showed up to 5 percent of residents working from home, but that today that figure could be as high as 15 percent.
“If you add up the number of people working full-time from home, plus those working part-time jobs, the number bumps up to 40 or 50 percent … it’s an economic development initiative for rural Franklin County,” Cohill said.
Gills Creek District Supervisor Bob Camicia said realtors have complained to him that potential buyers back out because of slow internet service. “We’ve lost a lot of folks coming in because they don’t have good broadband access,” Camicia said. “They turn around and are not buying. It’s almost like water. You have to have it if you’re expecting many people to move here.”
Boones Mill Supervisor Ronnie Thompson said he’s heard similar complaints from the Windy Gap area of Franklin County, with homeowners saying they have trouble selling their property because they have no internet access.
Cohill shared a broadband access service chart with FCC data, but cautioned that if even one customer in a census tract has broadband, the FCC counts everyone in that tract as having broadband. This affects how federal grants are applied, he explained, “so we are trying to help the county identify where there’s a problem, and we want your input.”
In general, the chart shows that broadband (25 Mbps) is most prevalent in Glade Hill, Rocky Mount, Union Hall and Wirtz. The areas with the least access are Callaway, Penhook and Henry. DSL and wireless are the two most common types of service available countywide, with a small percentage of Boones Mill and Westlake having access to cable.
Leland Mitchell, supervisor for Snow Creek, said he finds service varies even in areas noted as well-served. “I don’t see where there’s one specific area that really hurts any worse than any other one. There are areas of the county that have good service every day, but you go a couple of miles down the street and you don’t have anything.”
The next steps for supervisors and other county officials, Cohill noted, are to identify projects that may be completed quickly, to weigh solutions as they apply to different parts of the county, and to look for partnerships with ISPs, schools and colleges.
Sandy also mentioned that he’ll soon have more information soon on funding through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative Program, which could help fund fixed wireless for 600 homes in Snow Creek. Plus, he submitted a pre-application in December for a tobacco commission grant that can pay up to 50 percent of infrastructure construction costs. That grant would go to coaxial cable in Ferrum and Windy Gap, plus fiber conduit placement along Grassy Hill Road and in Summit View Business Park.