Localities make broadband internet a priority to attract, retain businesses

It should come as no surprise that quality, high-speed internet is a necessary function in our society today. So, what happens when certain areas do not have access? Not only is it a personal inconvenience, it hinders students’ educational experiences and negatively impacts local businesses as well.

To minimize this current lack of access as much as possible, local county officials are putting plans in place to bring broadband internet to the more rural parts of our region—particularly Bedford, Amherst, and Campbell counties.

Bedford County
Businesses and residents in Bedford County currently face many challenges when it comes to high-speed internet. Some of the issues include difficulties accepting and processing credit card payments, being unable to use the latest technologies on local farms, and inabilities to work from home. The service that exists today is expensive, and those who can afford to have it describe the quality for basic service as “poor.”

One popular general store and gas station located in Moneta is one of many businesses that is feeling the pain. Christine Brodt, owner of Diamond Hill General Store, says she would be grateful to receive a service that would not only provide internet, but also TV and phone service.

“Inside the store, we run a Boar’s Head Deli & Bistro,” Brodt says.

“There have been times when customers would like to stay for lunch and use the internet, but, unfortunately, these customers have left and gone elsewhere because we do not have access to broadband.”

The store does have DSL, but it is intermittent and extremely slow, Brodt says. She explains it has gone down many times—sometimes for a few minutes, other times for an entire week.

“Being a convenience store, it is imperative to get credit card customers in and out in a timely manner with no waiting for the slow internet to complete their transactions,” Brodt says. “When tourists come [to Smith Mountain Lake] from Northern Virginia, Greensboro, New York and other cities, they cannot fathom that it is so rural here; they want amenities.”

The county has a project in the works with the Roanoke-based Blue Ridge Towers to expand high-speed internet access by mid-2020, and they say they are moving full speed ahead to construct a county-wide network.

“Bedford County currently owns two towers, and our agreement funds up to 10 additional towers and necessary infrastructure,” says Edgar Tuck of the Bedford County Board of Supervisors. “These towers can accommodate multiple service providers, and it is our hope that they will offer various technologies that will help deliver services into 90-95% of our underserved areas of the county.”

Once these towers are up and functional, Tuck says they will then analyze areas that are still a challenge and take steps to add additional infrastructures to fill in the gaps.

“This internet access is a necessary service to help our local businesses grow, achieve their goals and be successful in a competitive market,” Tuck says. “We want to do all we can do to help our local businesses succeed and be an integral part of our community for generations to come.”

Several things are happening outside of the tower project as well. Comcast is currently laying fiber along Smith Mountain Lake and will offer services to 7,000 homes along the Bedford County shoreline. Shentel continues to expand offerings in various parts of the county, and Strategic Global Networking Group, a Moneta-based company, is preparing to provide high-speed access to the downtown Moneta area.

“Our businesses will have the tools to expand their footprints, spending less money on basic internet services and more on the priorities they have for their business plans,” Tuck says. “[Broadband] will help Bedford County attract families that are able to work remotely, bringing higher household incomes to our area, that are able to spend their discretionary dollars right here in our county. It will give our students the ability to enhance their educational experience and have greater opportunities for various careers. It will help us attract a new industry that requires a workforce that is connected to the internet.”

Amherst County
Broadband internet has been a priority for Amherst County for years, according to Claudia Tucker with the Amherst County Board of Supervisors.

“While we have made some progress with Verizon towers, our situation is not acceptable,” Tucker says. “Access to broadband is so much more than simply being able to surf the internet. It’s a societal differentiator between urban and rural counties. Lack of access puts our students behind from the very beginning of their educational experience.

In Loudon County, second graders are learning to code. In rural Virginia, parents have to take their kids to a fast food restaurant or public library to access the internet.”

Lack of access not only hinders students, it affects businesses and workers, too. With internet-based businesses on the rise, many companies are hiring based on expertise, rather than location, and are offering these employees work-from-home opportunities. Insufficient internet makes this business concept very difficult to accomplish.

“I’m one of those employees,” says Tucker. “I have a great job that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have access. Sadly, I have to pay many times what the going rate is for internet because of where I live.”

Fortunately, Amherst does have an agreement with a company based in Nelson County, which should be completed by this year. SCS Broadband/AcelaNet is ready to begin mounting its equipment onto Amherst’s towers. However, the recent lengthy, federal government shutdown has delayed action on the FCC approvals that are needed. Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers is still hopeful, nevertheless, that the towers can all be operational by the end of the summer.

“Amherst County derives the vast majority of its governmental revenue from real property taxes,” Rodgers says. “Without gaining a larger portion of our revenue from business taxes, we miss out on the revenues that are possible from a booming economy. Therefore, the county government has been engaged over the past year in a massive ‘business friendliness’ initiative to change our polices, ordinances and processes to make it easier to set up and do business here in Amherst.”

A major element of this initiative is increasing broadband coverage.

“While a mountainous community has its challenges with coverage in the valleys and behind the peaks, we are also blessed with existing towers on mountaintops in very favorable locations that help extend the broadcast range of the internet signals,” Rodgers says.

Campbell County
Campbell County acknowledges the lack of broadband internet as a weakness in the area and has recently established a broadband authority to tackle the issue. Their first meeting took place March 5.

According to County Administrator Frank Rogers, officials have investigated several options and opportunities to advance this issue—including attending conferences and panel discussions, researching grant opportunities and having preliminary discussions with several providers.

“The county has received significant input from commercial and residential interests advocating for more broadband coverage throughout the county,” Rogers says. “These concerns have been brought to the county from the perspective that having broadband readily and widely available will enhance commercial opportunities, improve educational opportunities, collectively improve the quality of life for all county residents—private and commercial—and meet the expectations of today’s world.”

Enabling businesses to thrive and ensure participation in an increasingly global, automated, and commercial environment directly impacts the local economy. Rogers says increased educational access and improved property values would also boost the county as a whole.

“A thriving local economy is the result of a strong network of interconnected elements—business/commercial, educational and residential. Broadband access can positively impact all three areas,” says Rogers.

While broadband internet is at the top of the priority list for Campbell County’s budget, it is still too soon to tell where and when service might be expanded. The next meetings about the issue are scheduled to take place quarterly in 2019 on June 4, September 3 and December 3.