Dependable and affordable broadband access is now widely available across all urban centers of the US but citizens in many rural areas like Clarke County cannot count on the same digital amenities when flipping the power switch on their PC, Kindle or IPad as their city cousins. In many areas of Clarke County, home broadband access requires a significant investment in equipment and a high monthly fee for often minimal throughput speeds and “capped” monthly data download plans.
Clarke County, like many other areas of rural Virginia and the nation is looking for solutions to the broadband access problem but in a rapidly changing technology landscape today’s answer can often be tomorrow’s obsolete mistake. The situation has challenged Clarke County leaders as they seek to find solutions.
But waiting for better, cheaper broadband can be frustrating to taxpayers who have come to see broadband access as a modern necessity. According to the Center for Rural Strategies, less than half of rural adults have access to broadband at home, while two-thirds of metropolitan adults do. As the Internet becomes crucial in economics, education, and civic life, communities that are left behind pay a higher price for their lack of access. The Center for Rural Strategies also says affordable access and widespread training will help rural communities thrive and contribute to the nation’s health and well-being.
NTIA – the National Telecommunications and Information Administration arm of the Department of Commerce that serves as the President’s principal adviser on telecommunications policies pertaining to the United States’ economic and technological advancement and to regulation – reports that a gap remains between rural and urban residents in their adoption of broadband, but the gap is narrowing. In 2010, 66% of urban residents and 54% of rural residents had broadband connections. This year, the rates are 70% and 60% respectively.
NITA says that in rural areas, 9.4 percent of residents said that they didn’t have broadband because it was unavailable. In urban areas, that reason was given by only 1% of those asked.
“It is clear technology is changing very rapidly. Given the phone companies (AT&T and Verizon) and our regional wireless providers have recently announced new upgrades, we can expect the rate of improvement to continue” Hobert said regarding broadband access in Clarke. “Speeds, availability and pricing are better than they were just four years ago and are improving steadily. This makes planning difficult. Even if we could afford a large capital investment in this area, we do not want to put time and money into a technology that will be out-of-date before it is paid for.”
Hobert said that Clarke County’s broadband access planning has been facilitated by a series of discussions with officials from the Center for Innovation Technology located in Herndon, Virginia. County officials met in March with Delegate Joe May (R-33 VA), Karen Jackson, Deputy Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth, CCPS Technology Director David Baggett, Technology Services Administrator for CC Schools, David Ash, County Administrator, Chuck Johnson, Director of Planning and Gordon Russell, County IT Director. A smaller working group of County employees subsequently met and reviewed a coverage map prepared by Russell showing Verizon/DSL coverage, Comcast coverage, and towers and housing clusters in the County.
“After reviewing the information, county officials agreed to invite wireless providers to meet with us to discuss their interest in Clarke expansion, the issues they face, and possible ways in which we might cooperate” Hobert said.
Contacted by telephone on Thursday, Delegate May said that the March meeting with the was facilitated by legislation that he sponsored to create a “Broadband Advisory Council”.
“I proposed the Advisory Council to facilitate improvement of broadband coverage throughout the Commonwealth and particularly in under-served areas” May said. May said that the Advisory Council is still a “work-in-progress” but his goal was to promote meetings between Virginia’s Technology Secretary and local governments.
“The Technology Secretary can provide assistance through broadband tools, policy guidance and practical examples on what other localities have done” May said.
According to the county’s broadband committee, high speed service is available through cable, DSL, wireless or satellite across a large part of the County,. However the difficulty, according to Hobert, seems to be in providing a particular level of service to specific customers where the level of service is not adequate to address the customer’s needs or where it is not feasible to extend wire line service to isolated areas or where wireless service is not available through existing antenna sites.
“Wireless providers tell us they now have the reach to serve many more customers than they did even a short time ago. The problem they hear from their prospective clients is that the cost of their service is too high” Hobert said. “The issue for many may not be availability as much as price which is not something that the County can change. Even public/private partnerships are expensive.”
Yet, according to site coverage maps from AT&T and Verizon, many people in Clarke County do have access any form of broadband support and those in marginal coverage areas may balk at upfront installation and equipment costs that are additional to ongoing monthly service fees. Unfortunately, no quick-fixes to better coverage are likely to appear anytime soon because Clarke County, like many other low-density population areas, faces what Delegate May describes as a “last-mile” problem where the significant expense of bringing a physical cable from the Internet’s wider backbone network to an isolated consumer’s home or office doesn’t generate enough revenue to justify the installation costs.
“Cable and telecommunication companies have been working to install the last-mile in densely populated areas for years because that’s where the revenue is” May noted. “But rural areas just aren’t profitable for them”.
Nationwide, some localities have required cable television vendors to provide access to all residents of a locale as a condition of doing business in the area. However, Hobert said a similar approach is not possible in Clarke County due to changes in telecommunication legislation.
“The County’s franchise with the local cable company expired some time ago and regulatory changes have made it unlikely that extension of service can be mandated through such an agreement” Hobert noted. “But, new agreements are nonexclusive and the County can consider offering a franchise to any provider that offers a valid proposal to extend service in this manner. Here again, however, any decision to make this investment is tied to density of population, which is primarily limited to our towns.”
In fact, part of the reason for the regulatory changes has been the emergence of wireless broadband technologies that are quickly replacing the need for physical cables to deliver internet access and Delegate May sees wireless technology as a potential solution for rural area access challenges.
“Wireless broadband is an affordable technology that can be delivered through small, independent wireless providers all over Virginia” May said. However, May said that like most small businesses, many wireless providers are short on financial and planning resources. To help assist small wireless providers with expanding their service offering, May submitted legislation that established a wireless broadband fund administered by the Commonwealth of Virginia that is authorized loan money to organizations trying to bridge the last mile of the internet, using either wireless technologies or other methods.
The problem is that no money has yet been allocated to the fund by Virginia’s General Assembly.
“I’ve tried to get funding through budget amendments the last two years but haven’t had success yet. But at least now the financial infrastructure is in place” May said. “Lately we’ve been looking at diverting telecommuting funds to the program. I expect that well get funding sooner or later.”
Contacted to comment on the federal government’s responsibility in bringing affordable broadband to rural locations like Clarke County, a spokesman for Congressman Frank Wolf characterized the challenge as a “local issue”.
“The American Resource Recovery Act stimulus bill provided $4 billion for expanding access to broadband” said spokeperson Daniel Scandling. Scandling referenced a website that tracks federal grants for extending broadband to rural Virginia localities, http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/virginia, however Clarke County does not appear as a recipient of any ARRA funding.
“Most of the federal government’s one-time stimulus spending focused on “middle-mile” infrastructure” May confirmed. “I don’t see the federal government as providing the final solution to broadband access to localities.”
But wireless is not the only broadband option that could help solve Clarke County’s needs. Other approaches for providing broadband access include use of existing technology, like power lines, but so far the solution hasn’t worked at least in the Northern Shenandoah Vaelly. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative CEO Kent Farmer said recently at meeting with the Clarke County Board of Supervisors that REC’s recent partnership with another firm to provide broadband access hadn’t worked but the company was still looking for solutions.
“While REC recognizes the value and potential benefits of expanded broadband availability, our efforts remain focused on the core business of providing reliable electric service and providing tools to our members to help them manage their energy costs” said REC spokesperson Ann Lewis. “We continue to be interested in broadband for both utility purposes as well as commercially providing access to consumers but we have not yet found a workable business model. We are continuing to investigate options but we don’t see any good prospects in the near term.”
But if improving broadband access to local citizens is, in fact, a local responsibility, Clarke County officials say that they are working to determine a strategy that can move the county into digital age.
“We are still in an information gathering phase. Our next steps will include sharing information from wireless providers to evaluate the feasibility of mutual support for increasing accessibility to the areas outside of current coverage areas served by Verizon and Cable” Hobert said. “In addition, we hope that our meetings with providers will improve our knowledge base ultimately for dissemination through our web site describing which alternatives are available, their potential cost and coverage, and information for a citizen to evaluate whether and how they might be able to improve their access to broadband”
Hobert said that the county has also discussed with providers the feasibility of identifying clusters of residents outside of the primary coverage areas, which could be served by relays installed with access to existing towers.
“In order to assist those that have been unable to secure service, I anticipate the County soon will add a page to its website identifying the available providers and providing internet service providers with information volunteered by respondents about location and service desired” Hobert said. “We may be able to find a way to permit providers to access the list to determine where willing but not-served customers are available in order to establish where additional infrastructure would be needed. We have learned that some wireless providers will consider special options using one customer to relay service to others so long as there is an agreement and understanding of the inherent limitations to these arrangements.”
Hobert said that wireless service providers continue to add antenna locations and are deploying new technology allowing them to serve customers that could not be reached until recently and advised residents who previously could not get wireless service to check with multiple providers if they have not done so recently.
Innovative technologies almost always demonstrate a decreasing cost curve for those that can afford to wait for adopt adoption. For the moment, Clarke County appears to be taking a “wait and see” position on its more long term broadband coverage strategy.
“Our discussions have also suggested, at least at this point, that we may want to go slow with the idea of attempting to build out a public or public/private wireless/tower/relay infrastructure until we can evaluate the rapid development of mobile wireless capabilities which are expected to continue to be the industry’s major area of capital investment – 3G and 4G networks – and which may ultimately be the path that most rural residents follow to gain access to higher speeds at reasonable cost” Hobert said. “The deployment of 4G service from the cellular services seems to promise additional services and coverage areas. While this level of service will be provided in metropolitan areas first, we have been told it will be available to many in the not too distant near future.”
But while 4G and wireless broadband support continue to make strides, Hobert says that current solutions exist for nearly all regions of Clarke County.
“Based upon the information we have been provided, I do not agree that only “few areas of Clarke County are covered” Hobert said. “There are certainly gaps of service, for example, between the mountain and the river, but even in these areas, services superior to dial up are availableâ€¦ albeit at a cost. Certainly there are advantages to have affordable broadband in the County and it clearly will continue to be a part of our future. While at this time it does not appear we should or could be a provider of last resort for these services, we will continue to work to educate our citizens and certainly take advantage of every opportunity to promote improvements in broadband service to them.”
Additional information about internet access options in Clarke County, Virginia can be found on the county’s website at http://www.clarkecounty.gov/information/internet-access.html