Microsoft project could help link rural Virginia to broadband internet

By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
July 19, 2017 | 1:00 p.m.

In the next edition of The Dinwiddie Monitor, Michael Campbell talks with county officials about what they are doing to bring broadband internet services to residents in the county following an update to the Board of Supervisors during their regular meeting Tuesday evening. Available on newsstands and online on July 26.

VIRGINIA – As more and more of American and international daily life shifts to online-oriented services, increasingly, rural communities are left behind due to lack of access to Internet service or the steep costs of getting the internet to rural homes and businesses, who are often well beyond the borders of more densely populated metropolitan areas.

It is a trend that technology titan Microsoft is hoping to curb and eventually bring to an end as the Washington-based company announced their Rural Broadband Initiative, aimed at eliminating the rural broadband internet gap within the next five years.

In an announcement Tuesday, Microsoft President Brad Smith announced the company’s plans to close the rural broadband gap by using a technology model that uses a combination of “TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage” in an effort to reduce capital and operating costs “by roughly 80 percent” when compared to the costs of using fiber cables alone and “approximately 50 percent” when compared to current fixed wireless technology.

“While the majority of Americans take broadband for granted, 23.4 million people living in rural areas of our nation lack an adequate internet connection, which means they are unable to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities enjoyed by their urban neighbors,” Smith said.

According to Microsoft’s data, over 23 million Americans lack an adequate internet connection and specifically in Virginia, comparison and research website BroadbandNow reports “There are 855,000 people in Virginia without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds” and “Another 358,000 people in Virginia don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live.”

Delving further into the numbers, BroadbandNow, pulling data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, reports a vast majority of Prince George residents have access to speeds of 25mbps, while just over half of Dinwiddie residents and a third of Sussex residents do.

According to their data, Surry doesn’t presently have access to internet speeds of over 25mbps.

“High costs, the absence of new and alternative technologies, and market and regulatory conditions have all hampered efforts to expand coverage,” Smith continued. “This is now changing, thanks to recent advancements in technology, newly adopted standards, business model innovations and a growing demand for a broad range of cloud services.”

As part of Microsoft’s plans to close the broadband gap, the company announced Virginia is among 12 states the company will be working in to with a series of TV white spaces pilot projects.

While it remains unknown what communities in Virginia will see the project, it has not stopped Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, an advocate for closing the rural broadband gap, from celebrating Microsoft’s efforts.

“Expanding rural broadband access is a vital part of this administration’s work growing and diversifying the new Virginia economy and I am pleased that Microsoft has chosen our Commonwealth as one of the initial 12 states to launch this initiative. Microsoft’s plan to invest alongside local telecom services, as well as form partnerships with local and regional organizations like the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, will allow them to pinpoint specific needs of rural localities, bridging the rural broadband gap,” the governor said in a statement following the announcement. “I look forward to working with Microsoft to make sure we succeed in bringing broadband access to every corner of the Commonwealth.”

As part of this effort, Microsoft announced their intention of partnering with telecommunications companies with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to two million people in rural America by July 4, 2022.

The company said they have no plans to enter the telecommunications business or “even profit directly from these projects,” instead opting to “invest in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, seek a revenue share from operators to recoup our investment, and then use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further.”

Microsoft announced Thursday they will also partner with the National 4-H Council as part of their Rural Airband Initiative.

“As a country, we should not settle for an outcome that leaves behind over 23 million people living in rural America,” Smith said, “To the contrary, we can and should bring the benefits of broadband coverage to every corner of the nation.”

Through this project, TV white spaces are expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of the underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of fewer than two people per square mile, and fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile.

In Microsoft’s estimation, the mixed model of expanding broadband coverage “will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.”

Even though Microsoft’s announcement is welcome news to rural communities, some localities have already begun taking steps to help expand high-speed internet access within their borders.

In Prince George, following several months of discussion, the county, their Industrial Development Authority, and Prince Geroge Electric Cooperative entered into a three-party deal that tasks the cooperative’s subsidiary, PGEC Enterprises, with bringing 500 new customers online by July 1, 2021, following a grant from the IDA of $1 million.

In 2016, PGEC began a pilot project along West Quaker Road and Prince George Drive where they tested their model of providing internet service and found it to be successful enough, with over two-thirds of possible connections signing up for the pilot, to move forward with a countywide expansion the cooperative lays down more fiber to link their substations.

From those new fiber lines, connections would be made to homes and businesses that are within 1,000 feet of a VDOT roadway, allowing those connected to receive internet speeds of 25mbps download and 3mbps upload.

In the lead-up to the project’s approval, Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke walked through the county’s journey to expanding broadband, where he explained Prince George had provided a legal agreement to a wireless internet service provider to provide service on a tower near Route 10 in Burrowsville in 2016, but the county never received a response from that company or any other WISPs.

In similar fashion to Microsoft, Stoke pointed to high costs and relatively low returns on investment as drivers to why most WISPs opt to not set up shop in rural communities.

PGEC Enterprises is hopeful to have the project done within two years and plans to continue expanding beyond the required 500 new connections spelled out in their agreement with Prince George and the IDA.

They also noted that their project doesn’t have a border and they would be willing to expand beyond Prince George into areas that may be seeking an ISP.

Along with Prince George, Surry is also working to bring its resident’s online after working to lay fiber in the county and building a communications tower where wireless internet service can be offered to residents.

Despite being rejected for grant funding by the state, Surry County officials are working diligently with their selected internet service provider SCS Broadband to bring wireless internet service to residents in the county.

Even though the grant application from Surry and SCS Broadband was rejected, officials still plan to roll out a subscription service for residents and businesses for speeds ranging from 10 to 100mbps and upwards of 1Gbps with the use of LTE technology.

According to county officials, they are hopeful to see service being offered to residents by the fall of this year.

Similar to the communities of Surry and Prince George who are optimistic about the efforts they have made to bring high-speed internet to the residents they serve, Microsoft is eager to get their work underway.

“We believe a new rural broadband strategy makes this feasible, and with Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative we’ll put our own resources and energy behind this effort,” Smith said. “We can all innovate together, achieving what none of us can accomplish alone. And just as we look forward to sharing what we have learned, we look forward to applying over the next five years what we undoubtedly will learn from others.”

Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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