Almost 300 households dotted in rural and remote areas of Roanoke County are gaining access to high-speed internet service while construction nears completion on $880,000 of infrastructure improvements.
Federal coronavirus relief funding paid for the Roanoke County broadband expansion projects in its Vinton, Catawba, Cave Spring and Windsor Hills districts.
Under a county contract, Cox Communications expanded its fiber-optic and coaxial cable networks, connecting internet to as many as 90 homes in the Cave Spring and Windsor Hills districts.
Residents along Ridgelea Estates Drive, Lost View Lane and Lost Drive are now connected, along with people on unserved parts of Merriman, Franklin and Webb roads, said Bill Hunter, director of communications and information technology for Roanoke County.
Meanwhile, Salem-based B2X Online is finishing a wireless mesh project that will bring internet to an estimated 200 homes along and between Blacksburg and Newport roads in the Catawba Valley, Hunter said.
B2X also extended its wireless mesh network to residences in the Mount Pleasant area, on Pitzer Road, Coopers Cove Road, Brookridge Road and Horse Shoe Bend.
Unlike traditional wired internet, B2X’s wireless mesh technology transmits internet to homes through a network of nodes and receivers installed on existing structures, lessening setup costs, especially in mountainous terrain.
Like satellite television, Hunter said wireless mesh service can be spotty during bouts of severe weather, but the technology has greatly improved speed and reliability in recent years.
Two of four subscription plans offered by B2X Online provide broadband-speed internet, with the cheaper plan starting at $85 per month, making it comparable in cost to traditional wired internet, Hunter said.
Rushing for broadband
Roanoke County began exploring the extent of its broadband shortages in 2019, but spread of the coronavirus in 2020 intensified the importance of internet access, said Martha Hooker, county supervisor for the Catawba District.
“It is part of our everyday lives,” Hooker said. “If you work, you need it; if you are a student, you need it; if you are a teacher, you need it. If you order anything online, you need it.”
COVID-19 forced people into unresolvable situations, trying to work and learn from home without adequate internet connections, Hooker said.
“More than ever, broadband is a necessity for our citizens,” Hooker said. “It is a top priority for our board of supervisors.”
But Roanoke County is not the only government prioritizing broadband expansion.
Year-end demand from local governments trying to spend federal money before a December deadline, which was since extended, created a shortage of hardware required for broadband expansion, Hunter said. Fiber-optic cables and wireless mesh devices were in short supply, slowing progress.
Also slowing progress was a lack of availability among suddenly overbooked utility pole inspectors, who must do their job before electrical providers owning the poles agree to allow installation of internet cables.
“On some projects, we’ve had trouble finding electricians, as strange as that sounds,” Hunter said.
Bandaging the gaps
In a pinch, Roanoke County Public Schools plugged the holes of student internet needs as learning shifted from the classroom to virtual platforms.
The school division worked with Cox and Comcast to provide internet service for less than $10 per month to qualifying families, said Jeff Terry, the schools’ director of information technology.
“We were able to get internet to some families that maybe thought they couldn’t afford it,” Terry said. “We then realized there are going to be some areas that have no cable coverage.”
The school system initiated a two-year partnership with wireless provider Kajeet, providing internet hotspots that rely on mobile phone data to transmit web signals.
“We have several hundred hotspots deployed right now,” Terry said. “Where the hotspot coverage falls apart is obviously in a place that has very little cell coverage at all.”
And of course, Roanoke County has places without cellphone service, so a few dozen cell signal boosters were distributed to families of RCPS students.
“It did boost the signal enough for them to be able to do video instruction,” Terry said.
Hotspots are adequate for video instruction, and the school division also opened internet access to people sitting in their cars at school parking lots, and at community centers in Catawba and Bent Mountain, Terry said.
“Hotspots have done a good job for us, but it’s not the end-all,” Terry said. “A hotspot is kind of a short-term fix for real broadband.”
Subsidizing expansion costs
Roanoke County is ramping up future broadband expansion efforts by spending to bring internet access where service is needed.
“It started with the survey we did in 2019. Until we did the survey, our board of supervisors wasn’t aware that this issue is as big as it is,” Hunter said. “We were frankly shocked that so many people didn’t have internet.”
The survey polled 2,800 county residents, showing 20% of respondents had no internet access, while 13% did not have internet fast enough to meet broadband speeds.
“The need for broadband service is at an all-time high, and I only see the need growing in the future,” Hooker said. “If companies saw the expansion of broadband as profitable, they would have done it a long time ago.”
Internet providers have been receptive to expanding their service areas in Roanoke County, Hunter said, but it is not cheap to run fiber optic cables, or even to establish wireless mesh networks.
“Always for a provider, it’s a business case. If I’m going to put service down a road, then I’m looking for a particular return on my investment,” Hunter said. “Prior to the pandemic, what they call the ‘take-rate’ was only 30%.”
Given the opportunity to access high-speed internet, only three in 10 houses will sign up, Hunter said. Take-rates have probably improved in a socially distanced society, but local governments must still subsidize providers to lessen the financial risk of expanding internet access.
“Getting a company to commit to poling fiber up the mountains is hard when the homes are so far apart, and there’s just not that many people that live in one area,” Terry said. “It’s not like a neighborhood.”
Prioritizing public funds
For the first time in Roanoke County, local government funds are on the table for broadband expansion, Hunter said.
In the spring, Comcast will partner with Roanoke County to bring super-fast gigabit internet to 37 homes in Catawba District neighborhoods along Timberview, Paint Bank and Still Branch roads. The county is providing $265,000 to fund the project.
“We’re hoping to break ground in early March,” Hunter said.
On a larger scale, the county, in partnership with Cox Communications, applied last year for a $1.7 million grant from the state’s Virginia Telecommunication Initiative program.
If awarded, the VATI grant will cover 57% of a $3 million broadband expansion project, combining with $500,000 from Roanoke County and $800,000 from Cox to bring internet access to another 317 homes in the Windsor Hills, Cave Spring and Catawba districts, Hunter said.
“We are looking for the grant announcements to be made in the middle of this month,” Hunter said. “We’ve all got our fingers crossed.”
Tallying the cost
Achieving total broadband coverage in Roanoke County would amount to a roughly $50 million investment, Hooker said.
“We feel like that’s a conservative estimate,” Hooker said. “It’s an exceptional amount that we just don’t have.”
The board of supervisors recently petitioned state lawmakers to increase funding for VATI grants, but that’s not the extent of the county’s search for help.
“We are looking at all of our options,” Hooker said. “We have been talking to our state and federal representatives also, asking for their help.”
Hooker routinely hears from frustrated citizens without internet, and said she has made state and federal representatives well aware of the issue, but resources are limited. For that reason, Roanoke County is open to help from other sectors.
“Anywhere we can get it is appreciated,” Hooker said. “We’d love to partner with companies, whatever it takes to help expand this and resolve this issue. We’re willing to look at all proposals.”
Advancing with technology
Internet has come a long way since the dialup days, and change will continue with advancements to accessibility.
“The good news is technology doesn’t stop,” Hunter said. “Once upon a time, we got our internet on dialup modems over two wires out of your four-wire phone connection.”
High-speed fiber-optic cables have since become standard for internet, and even the coaxial cables that used to carry only telephone communications can now transport television and internet, Hunter said.
“So what’s going to be the next technology to advance? We can only guess,” Hunter said. “Will someone figure out how to do something with the phone lines that are still in everybody’s house? Or, there’s been studies about bringing high-speed internet across power lines.”
Nearby, Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative is delivering fiber-optic internet to customers using its existing power infrastructure.
“They’re looking to expand some of that next year,” Hunter said of the neighboring cooperative. “That could possibly come into Roanoke County.”
As technology and methods to access the internet improve with time, existing infrastructure is gradually expanding into more remote areas of Roanoke County. Local government is poised to continue abetting and expediting that progress until coverage is complete.
“I found some places around the county where a couple years ago service was not available, but over the last few years these providers have built out,” Hunter said. “A lot of people are now learning they had service move into their area, and they were unaware it was there.”