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Montgomery officials hope for progress soon on broadband expansion

Montgomery officials hope for progress soon on broadband expansion

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An update Monday on an initiative to expand broadband is slated be heard by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.

The discussion will follow up on comments from County Administrator Craig Meadows, who said during the July 13 board meeting that the county at the time had received four proposals for broadband partnerships.

Meadows told supervisors that each proposal came from wireless providers. He also said a committee had been set up to review the proposals.

County officials haven’t provided further details on the providers.

“Since a vendor has not been chosen at this time, I don’t have details that I can share regarding the proposals submitted,” county spokeswoman Jennifer Harris wrote in an email.

Harris said more details will be revealed after negotiations are complete and a vendor is chosen.

The most recent update on the county’s broadband initiative comes a few months after the provision of a final report on high-speed internet availability across the county and the neighboring city of Radford. The report was prepared by engineering and architectural firm Thompson & Litton and the Blue Ridge Advisory Services Group, a telecom and energy consultant.

Among other points, the assessment found that the portion of the Montgomery and Radford population unserved by high-speed internet falls at 7.6%, which is slightly above the national rate of 6%.

The report described that finding as surprising due to the view that the Montgomery County area is a hub of innovation, economic development and growth in Southwest Virginia. The report notes the area being home to institutions such as Virginia Tech.

Montgomery supervisors say they hope the broadband issue can be addressed soon, especially in light of the setbacks created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s one of our priority issues,” Supervisor Mary Biggs said. “We really need someone that can take that on as their job and be able to pursue and work with different companies, whatever it might be and getting the grants.”

The recent report suggests that the county designate an individual to address the broadband issue. The report also recommends that the county consider either forming or joining an authority, which would provide access to funds through the Virginia Resources Authority.

“I’ve definitely been a proponent of expediting broadband as much as we can,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Fijalkowski. “I realize, of course, there are certain steps we have to take in order to do it the right way. I want to be cautious, but I also want to expedite it.”

Fijalkowski said one issue that has put some pressure on the county to expand broadband has been the remote learning done by students of Montgomery County schools.

“It’s always been my biggest concern, especially since the coronavirus hit us, that we just don’t have enough broadband for the students,” he said.

Cause for even more concern is how the pandemic might look over the next few months after the school year starts, Fijalkowski said. There’s the strong possibility of spikes in cases, which could prompt students to return to doing most of their school work remotely, he said.

“It’s going to hold some back more than others,” Fijalkowski said, referring to how not every family in the county has access to the same quality of internet service.

The recent broadband report identifies 41 local communities — totaling just over 9,000 households — that have been deemed either unserved or underserved.

The report determined that some of the communities that should be among the first to be addressed are a section of Christiansburg south of Interstate 81 and the Shawsville area.

Fijalkowski, whose supervisor district includes the Shawsville area, said ideally he’d like to see some kind of project get organized by the end of the year.

“If we’re not able to get something started somewhere in the county, then we should seriously look at CARES Act money for providing hotspots in some areas,” he said. “At least so parents can bring them [students] to these hotspots and connect to the internet that way.”

The Montgomery County School Board, following a marathon meeting this past week, approved a plan that will bring students back to school with conditions on Sept. 8. The plan comes with numerous safety measures, including face covering and increased sanitation requirements.

The reopening plan will let 50% of pre-K to 12th grade students attend class on four half-days a week. Among the groups that will be allowed to return under the same conditions include students without access to the district’s mobile wireless network.

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