CHRISTIANSBURG — An ongoing study suggests the creation of a broadband authority to expand high-speed internet in the New River Valley, whose economic hub, Montgomery County, reports service dead zones.
Such an authority, requiring state approval, is among recommendations that are
part of a greater push to expand regional high-speed internet access .
Blue Ridge Advisory Services Group and Thompson & Litton, who are jointly conducting the contracted study, updated the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors on their work last week.
County supervisor Chris Tuck said he’s receptive to a regional authority similar to those that manage public water and power systems. He said such a body could include representation from Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Radford.
“In my mind, the internet is a utility,” he said. “That’s something we can look into.”
Among other key details presented was a list of the Montgomery County communities deemed as either unserved or underserved by internet access.
Residents, however, self-reported the quality of their internet service for that classification. One of the study’s next tasks, county staff said, will be validating that data.
Still, some supervisors said the service report seems to be a generally accurate reflection of issues in parts of the county.
“It didn’t surprise me about areas that are unserved,” Tuck said. He also said it’s unfortunate so many still have little to no internet access. “That’s something I’m hoping our board can work on over the next four to six years.”
Unserved pockets include the rural communities of Shawsville in eastern Montgomery County and Walton, on the county’s western side .
Local government and school officials have in recent years raised concerns about poor connectivity, which has hampered education and possibly economic growth, which are two points the report highlights.
The report states that the county is home to more than 1,600 information technology workers, many of whom need capacity to work remotely.
“Finally, there are residents moving from outside the region who have had FTTH [fiber to the home] service. They are disappointed,” the report reads.
Fiber, mentioned several times in the report, is used to deliver the top-tier download speed of up to 1 gigabit per second. Companies, including Google, have gradually expanded the availability of that bandwidth in recent years.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a bandwidth that delivers a minimum download rate of 25 megabits per second. The agency includes that rate in the general speed range needed to telecommute, or work from home, according to the FCC broadband speed guide.
Twenty-five megabits per second, according to the FCC, is also the minimum speed for streaming ultra high-definition 4K video, a quality available on popular platforms such as Netflix.
Most of Montgomery County’s population — approximately 89% — has access to at least three residential broadband providers that deliver download speeds of up to 25 megabits, according to 2018 FCC data. About 10% of the county’s population only has access to two fixed residential providers.
The county has no providers of gigabit bandwidth to homes, according to the FCC.
By comparison, approximately 67% of Charlottesville’s population has access to one home provider of gigabit internet. Another tiny fraction, 1%, has access to two such providers.
Additionally, 98% of Charlottesville’s population has access to at least three residential providers of what the FCC deems to be minimum broadband speeds.
One “intermediate action” under the broadband report’s recommendations is a requirement that a fiber conduit system be among the conditions when permitting new housing units.
The study listed its recommendation to create a broadband authority under “immediate action.”
Tuck said he’s not opposed to local governments providing financial incentives for internet service providers to expand their market in the region. However, he said such an expansion should include conditions to maintain affordable rates for new services.
Internet providers are typically reluctant to expand high-speed service in rural or modestly populated areas due to concerns about receiving a return on their investments.
County supervisor Sara Bohn said she’s interested in seeing the validated data and the final report, but she said she’s generally pleased with the broadband assessment so far.
“I thought the report was good. At least we have it, while before we didn’t,” she said. “What it did do was highlight all the shortcomings we have in our county, which is important to figure out.”
The remaining work includes the development of a regional broadband plan by January. Also expected to be done during that period is a cost analysis.
The study’s cost to the county was not immediately available.