County supervisors have adopted their goals for bringing broadband to more Loudouners—and the first hints at how they plan to do that.
The county’s new broadband strategic plan, adopted Thursday, was developed after consultation among 15 county departments, the county Communications Commission, two federal agencies, and 28 businesses and industry groups. All those organizations were asked how lack of broadband access impacts their work, and the answers that came back ranged from economic to educational to emergency communications.
According to a county report, the county Department of Economic Development said that one of the key things new businesses are looking for when they expand is internet access. Agencies like the health department and community development need high-speed broadband and mobile service to serve their clients and let their contractors and employees access records and files remotely. The schools have seen tremendous growth in their internet usage, and public safety agencies use wired, wireless, and cell phones for emergency communication.
“This is a big-vision document,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “And it’s not a spending document, it’s not a funding document.”
The plan sets five strategic goals: attracting broadband investment, particularly in western Loudoun, with incentives and lowered costs; building on the county and school system’s investments to share infrastructure; expanding broadband and cell coverage in western Loudoun; encourage “smart” technologies and laying down conduit any time roads are under construction; and make sure all students have constant, high-speed internet access for continuous learning.
The report also recommends folding those goals into Envision Loudoun, the county’s ongoing revision of its comprehensive plan.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) said the plan gives the county its “marching orders.”
“We need to dig out some deliverables, we need to make some things happen, so I’m excited about that,” Higgins said.
Some work has already begun. The school system has launched a $5 million project to network its schools together, and the county is paying a consultant $130,000 for a review of the county’s options for commercial, private and local government investment in broadband networks.
The difference in coverage between eastern Loudoun—the hub of the majority of the world’s internet traffic—and western Loudoun is stark. According to the strategic plan, in 2014, the Department of Information Technology and the Communications Commission determined that 14 to 28 new cell towers would be needed to provide adequate cell coverage in western Loudoun. Since then, two new towers have been built.
“It’s not just a western Loudoun issue for sure,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run). “It’s a Loudoun issue, because it also impacts our competitiveness for jobs and for companies down the road.” He added without ready broadband access, Loudoun’s bid to land big companies—like those whose search for a new headquarters have made news, such as Amazon and Apple—is “not a realistic goal.” The executives of those companies, he said, will likely want to live in western Loudoun, and will want high-speed internet.
In 2006 and 2007, the county signed 15-year Cable Television Franchise Agreements with Verizon and Comcast, each requiring the company to offer service wherever homes exceeded a minimum density. But the minimum density is based on the distance from based on the distance from the nearest “technically feasible point of interconnection”—a determination made solely on at discretion of the company.
Buffington said having a coordinated plan, while it doesn’t have any funding attached, “is going to make a big difference in the future for expansion of broadband and cellular coverage throughout western Loudoun.”
“I think it’s a good vision, the right vision,” Buffington said. “We do need to expand broadband and cellular services throughout western Loudoun County, just like they are in eastern Loudoun County.”
The Federal Communications Commission defines “broadband” coverage as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed.