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The challenge to communicate

The challenge to communicate

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Word the other weekend that phase one of a project to bring faster wireless communications to Virginia's coal counties is complete — wonderful news that the Roanoke Valley can only envy.

Valley government and business leaders should sit up and take notice. The progress in far Southwest is a measure to keep in mind next month, when a regional task force is expected to report on how to bring Greater Roanoke's fiber optics telecommunications network — patchwork, really — up to speed.

In Virginia's ruggedly beautiful, geographically isolated coalfield region, 15 cellphone towers of 27due for an upgrade are now capable of providing 4G — fourth generation — service, permitting ultra-broadband Internet access to mobile devices such as smartphones.

When the upgrades are complete, work will begin on 11new towers for a wireless network covering seven rural counties in far Southwest. For its speed, the network depends on a fiber optic backbone that is being extended as part of the current project, and exists at all thanks to the vision of the Virginia Coalfield Coalition.

That regional partnership of the Cumberland Plateau and Lenowisco planning district commissions, created in the late 1990s, identified lack of telecommunications infrastructure as a barrier to regional development.

It has been, and will continue to be, a "huge economic tool for the seven coalfield counties," Jim Baldwin, the executive director of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission, said in a phone interview. "They are all making efforts to diversify their economies."

Which is a critical need, of course, with coal-related jobs steadily declining — giving the region a key advantage in retooling for an information-based economy: hard-to-come-by public dollars.

Verizon Wireless is upgrading the network as a demonstration project for rural 4G service, funded largely by an $11million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

The Roanoke Valley's economy never depended on tobacco. Neither is its population so small nor its economic development needs so acute as to qualify for government stimulus programs devoted to easing rural America's entry onto the information superhighway.

But then, the valley's population is not large enough to entice private providers to build out the fiber optics infrastructure to give small business and residential customers affordable access. So how will Southwest Virginia's largest metropolitan area get its entry ramp?

The Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission task force that took up that question will lay out its plan next month. The immediate challenge to follow will be getting local governments, businesses and institutions to recognize how critically important success will be to the future of each.

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