By Roger Vance
As I sit in Hillsboro’s Town office in the Old Stone School to write this column, I’m marveling at the lightning-fast internet access speeds we are now getting within the landmark’s 143-year-old stone walls. And, I’m feeling confident this level of service will soon be available to all of our residents in town and in the surrounding area. A long time coming and—as with many of the challenges in this small and historic town—the internet solution has arrived with a quixotic twist, helped along by a widening bandwidth of community activism that is driving a series of exciting initiatives about to bear fruit in the New Year.
Tucked into the base of the narrow gap in the Short Hills, the town’s airwave access has always been limited. Arriving here in 1995, I was surprised to find a large and gangly TV antenna perched inside my old home’s attic. I soon found out, even with the antenna, TV reception was generally poor, radio reception unreliable. Over the years, cable and communications companies have repeatedly declined entreaties to extend into the rural reaches, or entertain a franchise agreement with the Town of Hillsboro. Thus, satellite dishes and wireless signals (bounced off antennas scattered here and there) have provided our TV and Internet access. Given the terrain, ever growing foliage and the thick stone composition of many dwellings, digital access speeds have been—well—less than spectacular.
Attending a Loudoun County Economic Development-sponsored broadband conference about two years ago, a Town Council colleague and I shopped our problem from booth to impressive booth of high tech service providers who were offering a variety of broadband solutions. To each we described Hillsboro’s circumstances and the pending road and infrastructure projects that include utility burial and what we thought was the readymade opportunity to include fiber communications. However, Hillsboro proved to be a bit of a head-scratcher for these providers, on the technical side and—but probably more critically—on the “return on investment” side. Sensing our discouragement, the conference organizer asked if we’d met with the Waterford Telephone Company yet? He pointed us to a guy sitting alone at an empty table in the corner.
We sauntered over to find Bruce Davis (aka Waterford Telephone Company) who was delighted to talk to us. Living between Hillsboro and Waterford, he understood the geography and the inherent challenges facing isolated rural enclaves trying to get the kind of Internet access and service that is today more of a necessity than a luxury. Proudly, he explained, he had the answer. Borrowing a piece of paper and pen he messily sketched it out to supplemented his technical discourse that, frankly, went mostly over our heads.
But what did stick was his throwback innovativeness and a somewhat subversive non-corporate commonsense strategy of exploiting an existing and ubiquitous communications network—along with his endearing laidback quirkiness that seemed perfectly suited to Hillsboro. Sealing the deal was his explanation for his company’s name derivation, harkening to the days of rural operator-run switchboards and party lines like the Hooterville Telephone Company that serviced the 1960s town portrayal of “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” We signed up for the ride.
Although the journey has had its fits and starts and more than enough roadblocks, mutual trust, perseverance and a supportive community prevailed, leading to last week’s deployment of a high-speed Wi-Fi to service the Old Stone School courtesy of the Waterford Telephone Company (with a couple of us helping pull wire through the attic). Success was confirmed when Davis reported streaming the Grateful Dead in my office while setting up the system’s logins.
Over the years, it has often felt as if in Hillsboro we are, like Sisyphus, destined to be pushing a boulder up hill, only to see it roll back down. However, with more and more shoulders joining in the pushing and our bandwidth growing, unlike Sisyphus who worked alone, that boulder is inching ever closer to the hill’s crest, where, loaded with energy, it will be ready to roll, pulling the town toward a real renaissance—beginning this coming year.
Analogous to the effort to bring high-speed internet, decades of grinding work to solve Hillsboro’s drinking water issues will culminate next fall when a new water source is brought on line. The water project will be part of the long fought for road and infrastructure improvements breaking ground in the summer, which will be transformative by mitigating congestion and providing safe vehicular and pedestrian access via a creative and context-sensitive traffic-calming design. Through the foresight of county leaders past and present, embedded in the project will be a sanitary sewer main that will be in place to address the needs of aged systems facing inevitable failures. Building on the work of a generation past that prevented the demolition of Hillsboro’s Old Stone School, a new cadre of volunteers has reenergized this venerable structure, adding an outdoor stage, creating a popular summer concert series and hosting dozens of performances and community events that draw thousands from far beyond our rural area.
A key component of the area revitalization is identity and inclusion that comes with community. Thus the importance of another long struggle to reinstate the Hillsboro postal identity, among the first in early Virginia, that was lost after 200 years of continuity. A community-driven effort to reinstate a unique ZIP code for Hillsboro and northwest Loudoun—largely led by the Greater Hillsboro Business Alliance—is now under Postal Service review with a decision expected in early January. Reinstatement of a unique ZIP code, which will correctly identify the area geographically, is critical to sustaining and fostering a booming recreational and agro-tourism industry clustered around Hillsboro.
So as I sit in my office at the Old Stone School, I reflect on all the support provided by County leaders and the many hours devoted by so many local volunteers to enliven, modernize and pull together this community. Truly, in more ways than one, our bandwidth is growing.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View From The Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]