By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Feb. 25 — Community leaders and decision-makers in Page County have long talked about the need for better broadband service, and now some of that discussion is evolving into action thanks to new federal and state funding streams.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the need for better internet connectivity higher up the priority scale at all levels of government across the country. As a result, monies aimed at improving broadband service — particularly in rural and underserved areas — have been included among federal CARES Act funding allocated to states to address issues related to the pandemic.
In December, Page County received nearly $1.7 million in CARES Act funds that will be used to explore the potential of the county getting into the broadband business by creating its own infrastructure.
“The Board of Supervisors had been talking about the need for connectivity in the Page County for quite some time and this funding was the perfect opportunity to help with the cost,” County Administrator Amity Moler said. “One of the approved uses of CARES funding was increasing telework, telemedicine and distance learning capabilities.”
With only days to spend the CARES Act money before a Dec. 25 deadline to dedicate the funds to a broadband project, the county contracted with RF Connect to provide a proposal to locate a server at Springfield Elementary School, provide three tower locations with a service node and three service antennas, as well as microwave point-to-point to provide up to 500 homes with service.
Once the technicians traveled to Page County, the initial plans changed, according to Moler. The first server location was moved to the Page County Administration building, and that installation on the roof of the building was recently completed. Moler says that RF Connect is now compiling data to make network adjustments.
“I’m waiting on their mini-closeout plan to roll out devices to the first end users,” Moler said. “They are working toward identifying the other two tower locations.”
The $1.6 million project is considered an initial “exploratory” phase to weigh the county’s current assets (potentially infrastructure) versus its liabilities (topography, among others). If the county decides to go further with the project, it may develop further infrastructure (two more towers), establish rates, create a billing system, and determine service protocols for operating its own broadband service. The project would be aimed at county residents who currently can not receive internet service, and in places where most providers will not invest in the infrastructure.
In October, the county received $78,800 in CARES Act funding funneled through the state’s efforts in its Fast Track Broadband campaign. Again, the funds had to be spent and the project operational by Dec. 25. So, the county contacted a local company to build two mobile “hot spot” units to test them out before committing to the eight potential units outlined in the overall project.
“The plan was to strategically deploy them throughout the County to highly populated areas with minimal internet access,” Moler said. “Citizens could drive up to the unit for a telehealth appointment, check email, download school packets, etc. from their car.”
The county administrator says these units will serve up to 25 users at one time, and that streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have been blocked, as well as inappropriate content. Due to their mobility, the units have already been placed at several locations throughout the county for various periods of time.
“So far, we have placed units at Lake Arrowhead, Shenandoah River Outfitters in Page Valley Estates, Rileyville Baptist Church…one is going to Hawksbill Recreation [Park] in Stanley, First Street in Shenandoah, Battlecreek Landfill…,” said Moler, noting that other locations will be considered as well.
Liz Lewis, director of the county’s Economic Development and Tourism department, received $390,000 from a grant application in recent months from CARES funding to support a program she called Page County Connect 2020.
Earlier last year at the onset of the pandemic, Lewis brought in grant funds to help create a Food Hub for laid off hospitality workers, as well as funding to create a production process for making masks. Her most recent successful grant was geared toward helping struggling families pay for internet service.
The project provides one year of internet service to homes that had access, but could not afford the cost. While the application projected serving at least 1,300 households, so far 245 applications have been received and the following one-year service contracts have been allocated:
- 100 homes received Comcast service ($9.95/month);
- 12 homes received High Speed Link ($25/month);
- Two received CenturyLink (cost not provided);
- 78 homes received a cellular hotspot (no existing internet service).
“This has been a great help to families with children participating in remote learning,” Moler said. “The county currently has around 30 subscriptions remaining.”
On Dec. 10, Page County received an additional $1.6 million from the state in Fast Track Broadband funds to build more towers and provide more coverage.
The county’s initial grant application with the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) was challenged last year by an internet provider. So, after consulting with the county administrator, Lewis withdrew the VATI application and submitted a request with the Fast Track program.
The initial application called for the construction of “nine towers, plus equipment, providing new coverage across the county reaching up to 4,500 unserved households at a cost of $3,165,888,” according to Moler. The county actually received $1,627,276 and has formed a partnership with High Speed Link.
“HSL was able to immediately expand coverage to the Lake Arrowhead area to comply with the Dec. 25, 2020 deadline,” Moler said.
The project has been downsized due to the 50-percent allotment and now calls for six towers at shorter heights, according to Moler, but it “will still provide coverage to around 2,000 households with each tower.”
“HSL is in the process of visiting site locations and working with property owners,” Moler continued. “We expect to have a construction schedule as soon as the application for special use permits are submitted in roughly two weeks.”
Page County officials have been taking a measured and multi-pronged approach to improving broadband service in an area where the topography makes it not only challenging, but simply not cost-effective for many large providers to invest in the infrastructure to take service into more remote areas.
The county administrator says several staff members are involved with the “team” coordinating ongoing plans with various vendors, including Lewis, GIS program coordinator Josh Hahn and administrative assistant Regina Miller.
“We’ve been working quickly and diligently to get our citizens connected,” Moler said.