County supervisors have voted to hurry plans to expand broadband into western Loudoun as rural residents struggle with virtual learning and teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve kind of reached a critical point, and an untenable impasse,” said Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), who led the initiative together with Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “And we are now at 100 percent distance learning in our schools, an COVID has highlighted that problem. And there are very few solutions, at least really wide, sweeping solutions, that we have been able to offer, and so this is really an attempt to kind of bolster that.”
Supervisors sent county staff members to work evaluating five options for expanding broadband internet in the west more quickly. Most of those are simply looking for ways to accelerate work the previous Board of Supervisors had already set into motion. They include fast-tracking applications to build some types of antennae; building off of work to connect school division facilities to expand fiber access for others; creating a single, ongoing map of telecommunications projects in the county; finding $4.8 million to finish connecting fiber to the Bluemont Community Center, Philomont Community Center, Philomont Fire and Rescue Sation, Loudoun Heights Fire and Rescue Station and Loudoun Height Public Safety Radio Tower; and generally brainstorming other ideas.
The projects are meant to prioritize service residential areas with underserved students.
Buffington pointed out it builds off of much of the work supervisors have already done—”the public doesn’t really know a lot of what we’ve done, and it’s really hard to get that message out to a lot of these folks because they don’t have internet access.”
Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) opposed the plan.
“I’m going to have difficulty putting more money into something like this,” Briskman said. “It’s a life choice. My parents live up in Maine, the internet is horrible and my kids complain about it every time were up there, but it was a life choice, and the internet’s just not going to be good, because that’s where they chose to live.”
But Randall said, “there are times when ‘we’re all in this together’ has to mean something.’”
“Whether or not it’s their choice is immaterial right now,” said Randall said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and if we do not figure out broadband, then we are going to have kids in western Loudoun County have an unequal education. And that is not okay.”
Supervisor voted 8-1, with Briskman opposed, on Sept. 15.