Aside from areas of Campbell County near Lynchburg that have cable service, especially in Timberlake but also in Rustburg, much of the rural county has little to no access to broadband internet. Oh, there’s internet availability through satellite TV providers and using cellular data on a smartphone, but that’s either slow and unreliable, costly or both.
In an age when broadband is as needed for daily life and everyday business transactions as electricity was a century ago, that’s simply unacceptable. The areas of Central Virginia — and this state and nation — without broadband access are at distinct social, educational and economic disadvantages to those areas where broadband is as ubiquitous as waking up your laptop, connecting at speeds up to 300 megabits per second, streaming a movie, uploading an Excel database to corporate headquarters or any other mundane task of life in the 21st century.
That’s why we’re pleased the Campbell County Board of Supervisors are finally moving to take concrete steps to advance broadband in the parts of the county where it’s only a dream or where access that bills itself as “high speed” is an expensive, barely useful nightmare.
After some delays and fitful starts, the county supervisors, meeting as the Campbell County Broadband Authority, consulted March 19 with a panel of experts in rural broadband deployment to discuss where the county is and what needs to be done to speed up the process of bringing as many of Campbell’s unserved or underserved residents and businesses online as possible. (Supervisors will continue their broadband talks Tuesday during their regular meeting in Rustburg.) There are state and federal dollars available to spur broadband deployment in rural regions — Gov. Ralph Northam has made it a priority of his administration to dramatically speed up the process — but localities must have clearly definable goals and a clearly laid out roadmap in place to take advantage of these programs.
According to county officials, Campbell’s under- and unserved populations comprise 6 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of the county’s 55,000 residents. Do the math: Conservatively, that’s about 10.000 residents who have little or no ability to take advantage of 21st century technology, either in their houses or in their workplaces. Those numbers also are likely to be higher, as “broadband” speeds, as defined by the Federal Communications Commission, are not anywhere close to what most broadband customers have. Instead of “high-speed internet,” it ought to be called “sorta-high-speed internet.”
What the supervisors heard at their March 19 meeting was that there are many paths for broadband expansion to choose from, and what matters is advancing on a plan that affects as many residents and businesses as possible in the most efficient way.
There’s the Bedford County model, which involves partnering with a private company, Blue Ridge Towers out of Roanoke. Plans are to construct 10 new utility towers, utilize several existing structures and lay about 21 miles of fiber-optic cable to create a wireless broadband network to reach unserved and underserved areas of the county.
Then there’s a technology called TV White Space pioneered by Microsoft that utilizes unused portions of the broadcast spectrum to deliver broadband internet wirelessly. A Forest company, SOVA Innovation Center, is working with Microsoft and the public school divisions of Halifax and Charlotte counties to roll out such a system in Southside. Bob Bailey, a SOVA representative, was on hand to brief Campbell leaders on the usefulness of such a system in those two rural counties to the south of Campbell County.
Also looming on the horizon is the anticipation the rural electric cooperatives will enter the broadband market in their service areas. Locally, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Lovingston in Nelson County, is a leader in the state, as it’s pursuing rollout of a $100-plus million initiative to bring its 14-county service area online. Portions of Campbell are served by CVEC.
Campbell, admittedly, is somewhat behind counties such as Bedford and Appomattox in addressing its rural broadband needs, but we hope — and expect — this recent spate of activity portends increased emphasis on addressing the glaring gap between broadband haves and have-nots. Educational achievement, economic development, quality of life: They’re all affected by broadband availability. Or the lack thereof.