Broadband file photo

In this October 2016 file photo, Michelle Lawson uses the internet at the Nelson Memorial Library to do school work.

White static may offer one solution for clear internet reception in rural areas.

In the past, white static TV channels acted as buffers between active stations to protect from broadcasting interference, but now may be used to transmit internet service without a problem.

While the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation — a nonprofit dedicated to filling internet coverage gaps in rural Virginia — moved forward with a pilot program in 2016 to test the viability of using static channels to provide broadband internet service, similar initiatives were under discussion in Amherst and Campbell counties.

The pilot program mission is filling the “homework gap” for students who connect to high-speed internet at school but not at home where they study. These channels provide options in rural areas because they are often unlicensed and unused, according to Mid-Atlantic’s Director of Community Outreach and Innovative Programs Jeremy Satterfield.

“In rural communities, you have a plethora of them available, where if you went to a city, you’re going to have fewer and fewer options,” Satterfield said. “That’s why it’s a good fit for rural communities.”

Partnering with Microsoft, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and local school systems, Mid-Atlantic is in the early stages of a pilot program equipping existing towers with the proper technology in Halifax and Charlotte counties. If it works, Brookneal is one area that could see a potential tower at some point, Satterfield said.

At full strength, 2,500 students in two counties will receive basic internet at home through the pilot, meaning they could access anything for school use but no more, Satterfield said.

Mid-Atlantic is looking to bridge the homework gap because rural students are likely to fall behind as education and the workforce changes, Satterfield said. While students have high-speed access at school, they may not be able to complete certain assignments at home.

“If you don’t have internet at home, you’re losing the aspect of education. You can only learn so much in a seven-hour school day,” Satterfield said.

An early study in Halifax, basically a pilot within the pilot of about 40 users, has already yielded data. Mid-Atlantic learned service extends farther during fall than summer because leaves have fallen taking away one less hindrance to distribution. While Mid-Atlantic installs new towers, the nonprofit is also looking to use public safety and water towers owned by the localities.

The speeds are slow at this point, only two to four megabits per second, which cannot reliably use streaming services like Netflix, Satterfield said.

Mid-Atlantic is close to a deal with an internet service provider and could eventually offer higher tiers of white space broadband through a provider, Satterfield said. Hilly and mountainous terrain, though, will likely prevent projected broadband from covering the whole region, he said.

“You’re never going to get 100 percent coverage off of towers just because of the lay of the land, the topography, it’s just not going to work,” Satterfield said.

Amherst County and Sweet Briar College have also discussed using a wave of spectrum the school has licensed to broadcast internet service in Amherst County. The idea would require bringing in a private provider with hopes of expanding service in the area.

“I think it was intended for video distribution on campus, and no one has really used it that way,” Sweet Briar Director of Network Services Aaron Mahler said. For a while, he said, the school was leasing the spectrum out, but those leases have expired.

Campbell County Public Schools examined using its broadband towers — abandoned after switching to higher-speed fiber this year — to provide service to public school students. Using TV white space could not bring the speeds and breadth of service the schools were looking for, according to Assistant Superintendent Robert Arnold.

“We’re not seeing it as a reliable solution to our problems to get internet more readily available to kids that don’t have it in the different parts of our county where there are a lot of dead spots,” Arnold said.

The areas east of U.S. 501 and south of Rustburg have “a lot of dead space,” he said. Campbell is looking to cellular companies to use the tower space to provide broadband. The lack of population density in rural areas, though, makes providers squeamish about expanding there. Arnold looks forward to hearing results from MBC’s pilot.

“When as a division you’re trying to put devices in kids’ hands to learn the way kids learn today, then you send them home and they lose that access,” Arnold said.

Jessie Pounds, Ashlie Walter and Nicole Steenburgh contributed.

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