By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
July 27, 2017 | 12:00 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – Currently in the county’s backyard sits Amazon, one of the world’s titans of innovation and a leader in technology who makes headlines through their efforts to further expand its business through the use online services.
For much of the county, it’s a possibility that those wanting to take advantage of Amazon’s online marketplace and other services won’t be able to due to a lack of high-speed internet, particularly in the ruralist parts of Dinwiddie.
It’s an issue that Dinwiddie supervisors are very much aware of through their own experience and the experiences of their constituents as they deal with a lack of internet service providers or options that are slow on the speed side, making browsing the web a cumbersome chore.
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Last Tuesday, much of the Board’s regular monthly meeting was spent discussing what the county’s plans are for dealing with the broadband internet gap in Dinwiddie, which data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration suggests that just about half of the county’s residents have access to high-speed internet, meaning the other half does not have access to speeds over 25mbps.
Norman Cohen, director of information technology for the county walked leaders and a small audience of residents through the county’s efforts, noting their work has been ongoing for several years, beginning in 2015 with a tower and vertical asset review by The Atlantic Group, which found 39 towers within the county, putting Dinwiddie “in good position” for the use of wireless broadband internet, a common option for rural localities where dropping fiber optic lines to homes is not as financially feasible.
In the Spring of 2016, a request for proposals was created and released, with the county officially selecting SCS Broadband out of Arrington, Virginia later that year.
Following the selection of SCS Broadband as an internet service provider, Cohen said they conversations with the company and determined who the stakeholders are in such a large venture while developing a draft implementation plan that would utilize LTE technology similar to what you see used in cellular devices like smartphones. While the plan looked at what could be done, Cohen noted that they also had to look at some unknowns, such as if the county could get access to or would even be able to utilize some of the 39 towers identified by The Atlantic Group, which requires going to the individual companies and receiving their permission, and determining the service’s customer base.
On the subject of the customer base, Cohen explained the challenge that many communities are facing as they deal with broadband implementation and expansion, determining where the need is and who wants the service.
“No Virginia county has successfully accomplished a complete last-mile solution,” Cohen said to the board, with the term “last-mile” referring to the connection from the source of the broadband internet service, be it a wireless communications tower or fiber optic line, to the end user, a home or business, often referred to as the hardest to make of the first-mile, middle-mile, and last-mile connections.
“There isn’t a road map that we can use as a guide to do it,” he continued.
The challenge for Cohen and other planning and technology leads in Virginia’s rural communities is the changing face of internet service and the risk that comes with sticking with one service concept, which could face obsolescence in a short period of time.
As part of his efforts, Cohen said internet service in Dinwiddie will have to be “a hybrid solution,” where there are different providers offering their services in parts of the county they are already in or are planning to move into in the future.
This hybrid solution would see the private partnership between the county and SCS Broadband complement service already being offered by Comcast and Verizon in parts of the county, along with others such as Mid-Atlantic Broadband.
Additionally, Cohen is encouraged by the recent announcement by the state of their intention to be the first state in the nation to take part in FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, and AT&T which would create “a dedicated public safety interoperable, nationwide mobile broadband network… to enable continued communication during a disaster or other large-scale event.”
“We would love to have a single solution, but we won’t,” Cohen remarked. “Through SCS, the private partnership, and other community expansion, we expect Comcast to grow, along with others who have a footprint here.”
For some residents, the current internet service they have isn’t cutting it, providing speeds well below 25 megabits per second.
“I have a booster and I get 0.38 megabits per second down,” remarked Angela Morrell. “I have had the option to work from home, but I can’t. I have a cell tower that is about two miles from my home so I think the wireless option doesn’t work.”
Morrell went on to suggest the county reach out to Southside Electric Cooperative to formally determine their interest in providing broadband internet service for residents, which steered the conversation toward what neighboring Prince George did last month to help spark broadband internet expansion.
As part of a three-party deal between the county’s industrial development board, the county itself, and Prince George Electric Cooperative as they work to deploy fiber linking their power grid, PGEC’s subsidiary PGEC Enterprises received $1 million in the form of an IDA grant to fund the connection of 500 new connections as part of their fiber-to-the-home program that started as a pilot program in 2016.
The connections would have to be completed in four years and officials with PGEC said they are committed to expanding service to even more customers after they have finished their contracted 500 connections.
For Cohen, while they watched the deal between the county and PGEC develop for their own research purposes, the cost was a sticking point for them as they looked at what other communities were doing in the broadband realm.
“I have alway said fiber is not the way to go as it is too expensive,” Cohen said. “We could probably do it some places, but the cost would be outrageous. Wireless is the way to go.”
He added that the question from there becomes delivery and how that service if offered, harkening back to comments from residents who asked the county to stay out of the internet service provider business.
“We don’t want to be an ISP and that has been the desire for us the whole time, but we need to find a solution for this,” Cohen continued. “We want to turn over every stone because we have heard the horror stories of counties doing assessments for $70,000 and they sit on the shelf for two years, then technology changes and the assessment isn’t even valid anymore.”
For Supervisor Dr. Mark Moore, while he understands the concerns and frustration at the perception the county is moving slow, the process of finding the right broadband internet solution is a difficult one.
“We don’t want to make a wrong step or cost Dinwiddie taxpayers money because we made a wrong step or a change without realizing it,” he said. “When you are trying to get people to move here, they expect and want internet connections as much as they expect water and electric. It’s part of the process.”
As Cohen and his department continue to move forward on their broadband efforts, a key aspect of his work will hinge on the community, canvassing them for information and, most importantly, their interest in possible services.
“We need citizen participation,” Cohen said. “The next step is having face-to-face and other communications with them so we can get that customer base and find out exactly who wants it and where the need is.”
“It’s a long process and I know people are frustrated but when we’re finally at the end of the long road, we will have the right solution in place,” he closed. “It is just the challenges of money, time, and resources.”