If you have home internet service in the Roanoke Valley, chances are you have only one choice of a service provider.
You’re about to have others.
The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority is launching a “game-changing” effort to connect residences in the region to high-speed internet via fiber optic lines direct to their homes.
It’ll mean speed-of-light service and eventually a choice of providers.
The process begins with a survey of residents in the Roanoke Valley the municipal broadband authority announced Monday morning. The survey, available on the RVBA website, will help determine where the highest demand for the service is, but with a mind to reach wide areas of the region.
“We’re changing the game,” said RVBA President and CEO Frank Smith. “We’re changing the infrastructure, allowing us to differentiate ourselves across the region and across the country.”
The municipal authority’s mission “has been to be an economic development engine, drive competition, bring more choice in … but also to serve the geographically and economically underserved,” Smith said. “We want to make sure we build in places that make sense economically but make sure we do not ignore those that are economically disadvantaged.”
The online survey is key to adding residential service.
“That starts with understanding where is the demand today, where is the demand likely to be tomorrow and what can we feasibly do based off of the network we have today,” said Jennifer Eddy, a spokeswoman for the RVBA.
When enough people in a neighborhood indicate they would use the service, a fiber spur off the RVBA’s main fiber optic network can be extended into that neighborhood, Eddy said.
More customers means the network can be expanded further, Eddy said. Because the RVBA is a government subdivision, profits must be rolled back into maintaining and expanding the network.
“When you partner with the RVBA, you’re bringing fiber to your home,” she said, “but you’re also helping us reach other homes we couldn’t reach otherwise.”
Smith said he anticipates the project getting underway before the end of this year. When residential service comes online, he expects it will be with one provider, with others to be added as the residential network and pool of customers grow, he said.
The authority already has heard from multiple internet service providers interested in riding on the RVBA network to serve residential customers, Smith said. He would not say who they are or how many.
Moving to residential
Monday’s announcement launches a new phase for the authority. It’s been focused on government, business and education customers since building its high-speed fiber network across the valley in 2016. But Smith said residential customers were part of the RVBA plan from its inception.
“We’ve had calls and inquiries and pushes from all sectors saying, ‘When are you going to get into residential?’ ” he said.
Currently most Roanoke Valley residents have one option for high-speed internet service — Cox Communications in Roanoke and Roanoke County, or Comcast’s Xfinity in Salem. In many cases, internet service rides on legacy cable television lines.
Representatives from Cox and Comcast could not be reached for comment Monday, which was Presidents Day.
The RVBA has built its own fiber network and will connect homes to it via fiber optic line, said to be the fastest service available. Private internet service providers can then service homes through those lines.
Smith compared it to long distance telephone service of a couple of decades ago, when customers could switch between long distance companies like AT&T, Sprint and MCI, all of which provide service over the same line to their house.
A fiber to the home connection doesn’t just mean faster gaming and streaming television and movies, Smith said. It opens the door to home based entrepreneurship and innovation and services such as health care that allow seniors to age in place and enhanced safety and public safety.
The RVBA was founded by the governments of Roanoke and Salem and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt to bring broadband internet access to the region. At the time, only 8% of the population in the metropolitan area had access to fiber networks, compared with 24% nationally.
While large metropolitan areas were big enough markets to attract broadband providers, and rural broadband initiatives benefited less developed areas, smaller cities were languishing with little to no broadband.
At the time, some in local government resisted joining the RVBA because it looked like government competing with private businesses.
Authority leaders said then and Smith still says the network is more like the interstate highway system — open access infrastructure there for any business to use for the economic benefit of all.
The RVBA also joined the fray to fend off an effort in the 2017 Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill that would have limited the ability of governments to establish municipal broadband services in places already served by private carriers.
The bill, seen by opponents as an effort to protect legacy carriers such as Cox and Comcast, was ultimately diluted so as to have little influence.
Competition looms in the future for the RVBA network.
So-called 5G internet service — delivered wirelessly — is an emerging possibility. Smith said that 5G signals can travel only so far through the air and must return to underground fiber, such as the broadband authority’s network.
That service will be “more complimentary than competitive,” he said. “We’ll do business with them.”
In addition, Shentel is seeking a cable television franchise agreement in Roanoke that would allow it to build its own network and provide internet service. The Roanoke City Council will consider that application Tuesday night.
Smith said part of the RVBA’s mission is to stimulate competition, innovation and creativity. Shentel’s application is an example that the mission is succeeding, he said.
In moving into residential service, the RVBA is on the “leading edge, but not the bleeding edge,” Smith said.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority is already offering residential internet service in Accomack and Northampton counties. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a favorite example of how municipal broadband catalyzed a resurgent local economy.
Smith said Fort Collins, Colorado, is in the process of doing the same thing now.
“If we don’t do it, then the question comes back from a competitive standpoint, where are we in the pecking order?” he said. “It’s an ingredient in making sure the Roanoke Valley is strong and able to compete.”
Find the survey online at rvba.online/ftth.