Some western Loudouners walked away from Thursday night’s town hall meeting in Purcellville with a better sense of why parts of the county are lacking in broadband connectivity, but the solutions remained unclear.
About 40 residents showed up at Purcellville’s Carver Center on May 16 for an information session, hosted by Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser and Del. Dave LaRock (R-33), to learn more about why internet connections in rural Loudoun are inferior to those in the more developed parts of the county and to learn about what internet providers and the state and local governments are doing to improve service.
Fraser said high-speed conductivity is critical for families and is needed to teach, work and play. He pointed to the growing importance of big data, which he called “the new Texas T, black gold.”
Tim Dennis, the president and cofounder of the Loudoun-based Invisible Towers and the chairman of the Loudoun Communications Commission, presented attendees with information on the amount of data the typical resident uses and why broadband is so difficult to come by in certain areas.
Dennis said it takes 2-4 gigabytes of data to download a single “Game of Thrones” episode, which to some users could equate to half of their monthly data plan, and that the Federal Communications Commission estimates 90 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones.
Dennis noted that it’s physics, finances and laws at the local, state and federal levels that constrain broadband technology from reaching everyone and that the county can’t do much to help other than approve the installation of more towers. “This is not a quick solution, there are no one solution answers to this challenge,” he said.
Jimmy Carr, the CEO of All Points Broadband and a fixed wireless industry representative on the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, made it clear that wireless internet only works if there’s a clear line of sight between a user’s home and the tower.
He said that for broadband to become more prevalent, the public sector needs to collaborate with and support local providers and build new infrastructure. He also said that internet providers need to support improved broadband mapping and that consumers need to understand that there might not be enough of a demand for improved internet connectivity in their area to attract providers.
Courtney Dozier, the chief deputy broadband advisor to the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative and the chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, said Virginia is working to identify where broadband connectivity is needed and which service providers are willing to expand in those areas. She noted that there are 645,000 Virginia residents living without high speed broadband—an issue she said would cost the commonwealth about $1 billion to fix.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” she said. “This is about equity no matter how you slice it.”
When asked why Virginia doesn’t provide maps depicting which areas are underserved, Dozier said the commonwealth is focused on spending money to connect people to the internet rather than spending that money on mapping out where the problem lies. She noted that the county administrator and thousands of residents know where the problem points are.
“It’s an imperfect solution, but maps take money and people want solutions not maps,” she said. “That’s just a function of prioritization.”
Zenon Dragosz, the county government’s administrator of Loudoun’s Broadband & Cable TV Services, outlined what the county is doing to help the situation. He said that, while the Board of Supervisors adopted a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance amendment in 2016 to allow for the faster development of cell towers up to 50 feet tall, that initiative helps eastern Loudouners more than it does those out west.
Dragosz said that broadband is essentially an unregulated industry and that, although providers can simply get VDOT permits to run fiber along highways without notifying the county, those providers aren’t willing to provide service in western Loudoun at a cost of $115,000 for one mile of fiber.
“There’s not much I can do to persuade them or encourage them to expand out into rural parts of the county … but we keep pushing,” he said. “Loudoun County is moving forward, it’s not moving as fast as we’d like to see, but it is moving forward.”
Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) also spoke at the meeting, emphasizing a common point that the broadband coverage dilemma is finance-driven. He said the county is trying to provide incentives for providers to move into Loudoun by lowering their cost of doing business and that it’s looking to lower the regulatory barriers to providers. “We want to make it more profitable for them to do business here so they want to do business here,” he said.
Also present at the town hall were former state delegate Randy Minchew, Round Hill Mayor Scott Ramsey and Lovettsville Councilman Mike Dunlap, in addition to representatives from Wave2Net, Sugarloaf Network Systems, Winchester Wireless and All Points Broadband.
Fraser said the town hall was the first of many. LaRock told residents to ask for more information sessions if they found Thursday’s useful. “I think we’re scratching the surface here,” he said.