The Franklin County Broadband Authority approved a master plan for improving broadband internet in the county at a meeting Tuesday.

The plan uses a hybrid approach of fixed wireless and fiber cable to provide broadband to the county’s many rural communities. When completed, it will provide high speed internet to as many as 20,000 homes in areas that are currently underserved.

“We are in the first steps now,” said Snow Creek District District representative Leland Mitchell after the plan was approved unanimously by the authority.

Fixed wireless will be used to provide broadband. New and existing towers will be fitted with the broadband signal that can be picked up by nearby homes. Plans also include community poles that could extend and strengthen the signal in a community.

Steve Sandy, director of Planning and Community Development, said fixed wireless was the most cost-effective way to reach many of the underserved communities in the county. The only downside, he said, is that a line of sight is needed from a home to a tower or a community pole to be effective.

While no timetable was provided for when work would begin, Sandy said it would take between a year and 18 months to complete the first phase, which is expected to reach more than 14,000 homes. The next phase will reach 5,000 homes, and phase three will cover 900 homes.

The total cost to provide fixed wireless is estimated at between $2 and $3 million, Sandy said.

The county’s fiber broadband project will extend from areas where it already is available at many of the county’s schools and village centers. Sandy said plans are to extend fiber lines to homes within a mile of where it is already available, which could impact as many as 1,000 homes. Sandy estimated that cost at $12 million.

The authority also approved plans by county staff to apply for grants from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative to assist in paying for the broadband expansion. Franklin County was awarded a $650,000 grant earlier this year to expand fiber broadband to more than 600 homes in Hardy, Windy Gap, Burnt Chimney and the Summit View Business Park along U.S. 220 between Rocky Mount and Boones Mill.

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