Dozens attend broadband internet information sessions

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 15, 2019 | 1:45 p.m. 

Second set of sessions set for Thursday in McKenney, Midway Elementary

DINWIDDIE – Weeks after signing a landmark contract to help spur the expansion of broadband internet in Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties, the company tasked with making that mission a reality met with residents who brought pens, paper, and plenty of questions to ask the region’s newest internet service provider.

Last Wednesday, dozens of residents and business owners made their way to the county government center and Dinwiddie High School’s auditorium for a pair of information sessions with RiverStreet Communications, the company tasked with delivering internet to the vast majority of those unserved and underserved in both Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties after entering into a multi-year contract that, once fulfilled will significantly close the digital divide in the two counties.

The project dates back to 2018 when both communities submitted a joint application to the Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission, with the county’s receiving a $1.7 million grant from the state agency to help support local-level and statewide efforts to expand broadband internet services to those considered underserved or completely unserved in the state, largely comprised of Virginia’s rural communities.

That money came from $10 million pool of state dollars from the VTRC, known as “The Tobacco Commission,” for short, which seeks to aid in the construction of “last-mile connections,” which refers to bringing service from the broadband infrastructure, such as a tower or fiber connection to the end user, the consumer, at their home or business. In order to get funding from the agency, applicants had to develop projects that would expand internet service in The Tobacco Commission’s footprint with speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, “with preference given to localities applying in conjunction with private-sector partners.”

After both communities decided to allow the project to return to bid, North Carolina-based RiverStreet Communications was selected by both counties to serve as their private-sector partner, made official in an announcement in September following Dinwiddie and Amelia’s boards of supervisors giving the green light to enter into a contract with the cooperative.

For most people, the September announcement and documents provided by the county as part of the request for proposal process during the summer was all they knew of RiverStreet Communications, with last week’s meeting serving at the cooperative’s formal introduction to Dinwiddie residents who may become their customers as they prepare to deliver services to those living in the county.

During a nearly hour-long presentation followed by a question-answer session, RiverStreet Communications president and CEO Eric Cramer and his team gave residents a look at their business, which started as a telephone cooperative over a half-century ago and transitioned to offering broadband services throughout North Carolina, with their footprint expanding over the last several years through various acquisitions.

The company’s data detailed substantial growth in their broadband and telephone subscriber base as, in 2010, they reported just over 5,100 broadband customers. In 2018, that number rose to over 16,000 and, by the end of this year, RiverStreet projects they will have just over 23,000 customers on just broadband alone.

The partnership with Dinwiddie and Amelia County has been part of a multifaceted expansion into the commonwealth. Along with this project, the company was successful in receiving $32 million from the Federal Communications Commission that will help them bring 13,000 locations online over the next six years just southwest of Dinwiddie and along the Eastern Shore.

With pens and notepads in hand, residents paid keen attention to the company’s price points once service can start being delivered, with a specific timetable for such delivery remaining in development and expected to be revealed sometime in late winter of 2020. According to RiverStreet, this service, which would be provided through fixed-base wireless, would cost $45 per month for speeds up to 25 megabits per second of download speed and three megabits per second of upload speed. Alongside that offering, Cramer explained the cooperative will also offer an option for low-income customers which provides the same speed but at a reduced price of $35.75.

Additionally, for $70 per month, customer download speeds are doubled to 50 megabits per second and a similar $9.25 discount applies for qualifying low-income customers, bringing that price to $60.75.

The service would be offered without contract and standard equipment installation would be done free-of-charge.

One of the prevailing questions that arose out of last Wednesday’s sessions centered around how soon the products will be offered and if one county would receive the services before another. Regarding the latter, Cramer said that both networks for the two counties would be built simultaneously and they have already begun the process of mapping out tower locations but, he noted they are already seeing more demand for the service in Dinwiddie.

When it comes to how quickly service will be delivered, Cramer and his team couldn’t provide specifics as the implementation plan is still being developed and he was quick to point out that there may be some people who won’t be able to take the service, likely due to the geography of their home in relation to the wireless service towers as dense foliage can obstruct and absorb the signals being emitted, making consistent connection a challenge, particularly when trees are in full bloom.

He and County Administrator Kevin Massengill noted, while this project is starting as a fixed-base wireless project, fiber drops to the home by RiverStreet could be an option for some customers where wireless isn’t feasible.

In a general sense, Cramer said they will start providing service once the first tower is lit, not at the end of the third year of The Tobacco Commission-funded project, adding it’s their hope to have that first tower up and running six months after the implementation plan is approved, which would be sometime in the fall of 2020.

When asked, RiverStreet CEO Cramer explained why last week’s sessions and the sessions this Thursday – 10 a.m. at the Robert and Betty Ragsdale Community Center in McKenney and 6 p.m. at Midway Elementary – are vital in their efforts to build a rapport with the community.

A RiverStreet Communications representative shows the example equipment that would be affixed to a customer’s home or business to receive the service.

“Coming into a market where no one knows who you are is tough,” he said. “We feel like the way we do this is a bit different as a cooperative. We try to be very honest, very transparent with what we are doing and not oversell. Everybody wants it tomorrow, everyone who doesn’t have it is going to be very vocal about it so, the most vocal and engaged people are the ones who show up at these meetings and they are the ones who talk the most.”

He continued, “What we found is, in some rural counties create broadband committees because their citizens who are really engaged want to get things done and are pushing local government. Here, the government is already engaged and went through the process so now it is just about educating people.”

Cramer said the questions they have received so far from residents about when the service will reach them or if they will be able to take it once offered have been great for them as they continue to develop their implementation plan.

In neighboring Prince George, Prince George Electric Cooperative has spearheaded their own separate internet expansion effort, partnering with several counties, including Prince George, Sussex, and Surry, to help bring fiber-based internet service to their residents, with officials there saying the cooperative model of making long-term investments to help deliver service is the best model for this expansion, calling back to the days of rural electrification, which was led by small, community cooperatives. Those sentiments were echoed by Cramer as RiverStreet, which started as a telephone cooperative continue to expand their efforts across North Carolina and Virginia.

“How traditional telephone and electric cooperatives got started is because people weren’t being served,” he said. “That is why I go back to our and electric’s roots, they are rural companies, they have rural customers, they know these areas. They are interested in investing in these areas for the long haul. They are very stable and have been around for a long time and they have a long-term and trusted relationships with their customers.”

Speaking to relationships, Cramer said that RiverStreet is committed to Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties for the long haul, with plans to continue expanding even after The Tobacco Commission-funded project concludes.

“Part of the reason I think the counties chose us is our long-term broader vision,” he said. “This is a great start. It’s seed money and that is tremendous but where do we get that federal funding? How do we take what we started and go across the finish line. This is a marriage, so we are here for the long haul, which is why we committed $1 million to show that we are serious about this. We aren’t going anywhere or walking away from this thing.”

Anyone interested in learning more about their service or wishes to have it once it becomes available to visit RiverStreet Communications’ website at http://join.buildriverstreet.com, where they can enter their information, which will be used as they continue to gauge demand and determine locations for expansion.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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