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Montgomery County looking to partnership to improve broadband

Montgomery County looking to partnership to improve broadband

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CHRISTIANSBURG — Montgomery County is partnering with a small Southwest Virginia company in hopes of improving available bandwidths in pockets that still have little to no access to high-speed internet.

The county is awaiting a decision on a nearly $1 million grant that it is requesting from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Virginia Telecommunication Initiative.

The county partnered with the company GigaBeam Networks and the New River Valley Regional Commission to submit the grant application.

The $1.4 million project will target the eastern Montgomery County communities of Elliston, Shawsville, Lafayette and Alleghany Springs. Of that projected amount, $919,569 is slated to be covered with grant money. The county will provide a 10% match, while GigaBeam will match the rest via a combination of cash and in-kind contributions.

The project would mark the first real step in the county’s most recent call to close the existing internet service gaps across the locality.

The collaboration also comes as county officials have raised concerns about whether local students — who have had to move much of their school work online due to classroom restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic — have access to adequate internet.

The partnership comes just months after the completion of a study that found that the portion of the Montgomery County and Radford population unserved by high-speed internet falls at 7.6%, which is slightly above the national rate of 6%. The report highlighted that rate while pointing out Montgomery County’s role as an economic and innovative hub for Southwest Virginia.

The communities the project aims to first serve comprise nearly 1,300 households, according to an estimate in the broadband report.

While the partnership was formalized in August, GigaBeam founder and President Michael Clemons did appear before the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors last week to speak about the company’s history and services.

“We strongly believe this partnership is the only way to do it, to do it feasibly,” said Clemons, whose company has offices in Rich Creek and Bluefield. “If a private company could do it on their own, they would have already built it … but the numbers just don’t work. You have to have something to make up the difference.”

Clemons’ comment was in reference to the need for grant money to address rural areas. He also said the often conservative approach from major providers in sparsely populated communities, where returns on their broadband investments aren’t as immediate as in larger localities.

GigaBeam specializes in fixed wireless broadband, which utilizes equipment on fixtures such as poles to transmit signals to a stationary antenna at a customer’s home. The antenna is wired to the home, Clemons said.

With plans starting at $45 a month, the company’s typical fixed wireless package provides speeds to the home of 10 to 50 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband — the general term for high-speed internet — as at least 25 megabits.

Clemons told supervisors this past week that there are plans to raise the speed of the minimum package and that his company will provide 100 megabits soon.

For comparison, leading local provider Shentel runs its 50 megabit package in Christiansburg at $65 a month, but the plan does include a discount of $25 for each of the first two months, according to an advertisement on the company’s website.

The equipment GigaBeam is looking to use in Montgomery County is capable of providing top-tier speeds but at more affordable costs than fiber-based internet, Clemons said.

Fiber, which Clemons said allows for the best overall service on the market, is the cable conduit often associated with top speeds such as 1 gigabit.

Clemons, however, did note that his equipment does come with some drawbacks such as needing a direct line of sight.

“If a tree’s in the way, it doesn’t work,” he told supervisors. Clemons said the tentative Montgomery County project would specifically employ a hybrid network, which will provide fiber to the more densely populated areas and then extend the service to the rural pockets using fixed wireless.

The county and its partners expect to know by either December or January if they’ve been awarded the grant.

“What we’re talking about is helping almost 1,300 homes. It’s very exciting. It’s a start,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Fijalkowski. “I know our citizens have been looking for something to happen. Unfortunately, it does take time. There’s a lot of planning involved, including with GigaBeam.”

Fijalkowski said he hopes the activity drives some competition and spurs the larger providers to expand their own broadband offerings in the future.

“I’m very hopeful that it does spur competition and that other internet service providers come forward and want to do other things,” he said. “But what it takes is probably somebody like GigaBeam to take that step.”

While the bigger goal is to extend high-speed internet availability in numerous pockets identified in the county’s broadband report, GigaBeam is already providing some services to the locality.

The company is providing the equipment for 20 hotspots that the county is deploying in some of its most poorly connected areas. The units, part of an existing initiative called Wireless on Wheels, are solar-powered carts that provide a satellite-based connection with a 150-foot radius.

County officials say funding for the carts comes from a fraction of the locality’s CARES Act allocation, a federal relief package that was passed earlier this year to provide financial relief to institutions, workers and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montgomery County received a total of $17.1 million from the CARES Act, retaining $5 million and distributing the rest to the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg and a local task force that was formed earlier this year to handle much of the local response to the pandemic.

County officials say the first wireless cart was slated to be placed at the Longshop McCoy Fire and Rescue Station at the end of this past week.

While the speeds provided by the carts won’t be exceptionally fast, the service is primarily for email and the downloading and uploading of assignments by local school students, county officials have said..

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