Members of the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee are backing a plan that would bring broadband internet closer—but not all the way—to rural western Loudoun.
A county consultant, Columbia Telecommunications Corporation, studied the state of broadband in rural Loudoun and what it would take to catch the county’s western homes up to the east. The survey found that about 96 percent of western Loudoun homes have some sort of internet connection—ironically putting them in a difficult spot.
“The downside is that half of the respondents have low to moderate satisfaction with the service, speed and reliability,” said Columbia Telecommunications Corporation CEO Andrew Afflerbach. “In other words, you have what you suspected, which is a real division between the eastern and western part of the county.”
And while he described the eastern part of Loudoun as “the core of the internet, and the most highly-connected part of the United States,” only a few minutes’ drive away, the homes are too few and far between to make it profitable for internet service providers to run new fiber optic cable. The consultant estimated it would cost as much as $9,000 per home to run fiber to individual properties—for a total of around $130 million.
And while there are federal grants available, they may not be available for western Loudoun. Those grants are only for areas considered “unserved,” with download speeds of no more than 10 megabits per second and uploads at 1 Mbps. That is around a third of the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum definition for broadband, 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. But Loudoun is considered ineligible for those federal grants.
Instead, the finance committee recommended partnering with a private-sector company to lay down 140 miles of fiber optic cable to connect 60 county facilities throughout western Loudoun, at an estimated cost of $16.1 million. Afflerbach said that would provide a “backbone network” for private internet service, bringing fiber within a few miles of most homes. From there, internet service providers may choose to connect from that fiber to residential areas.
That project, he said, could be paid off in around 10 years. The county would also look into piggybacking off a school system project to connect its facilities throughout the county.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said it would be a cost-effective solution, especially compared with the option of owning and operating a $130 million system.
“We would never get support for that, and even if the board voted to do that, it would be a long, long time into the future before we identified $130 million in our [Capital Improvement Program] to do this,” Buffington said.
The committee recommended the full Board of Supervisors send that conversation to their next budget deliberations. That could have funding for the project begin as soon as Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 2020.