Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A new day in the neighborhood

With luck, the soap opera that was Goochland is history.

The drama is over and everyone is working together to fix the myriad of problems that prevented the county from functioning well.

Signs that a new attitude is in place are all over.

In the past few weeks, County Attorney Norman Sales and his assistant Kelly Kemp guided both the Planning Commission and newly created Broadband Committee through the rules and regulations that govern them. This included Freedom of Information Act requirements for posting public notice of meetings; conflict of interest; what constitutes a meeting (using the “reply all” feature of email to discuss public business is not permitted) and keeping copies of all correspondence, including emails.
Sales explained to the planning commission that closed sessions are permitted only to discuss personnel matters; sensitive financial transactions or receive advice of counsel regarding litigation.

As the planning commission has no employees, does not engage in financial transactions and, so far, has not been sued, it has no grounds for closed session. Sales also made it quite clear that he will ensure that no county boards and commissions operating while he is county attorney disregard closed meeting rules. This is another nice change from past practices.

On May 9, the Broadband Committee held its inaugural meeting. Comprised of citizens with professional experience in information technology and telecommunications, this group will investigate existing high speed internet resources and seek ways to extend broadband access to the entire county.

Peter Martin, the technical director for Goochland Schools is also on the committee. He pointed out that the “digital divide” can be illustrated by drawing a line through the center of the county. Nonexistent internet access for many county students hampers their ability to keep up with assignments.

The lack of high speed internet access in the western part of Goochland is a serious deficit. There is no money to fund broadband infrastructure so any actions taken by the county are likely to fall into creating an environment to attract private investment.

In some areas, a dearth of cell towers makes use of wireless internet devices unreliable at best.
This committee is scheduled to be in existence for about six months and make recommendations on the subject to the Board of Supervisors in October.

The group elected District 2 supervisor Manuel Alvarez, Jr. chair and Marshall Bowden who lives in District 5 as vice chair.
Alvarez explained that his successful efforts to bring high speed internet brought to his Mill Forest home (he is one of two homes in that neighborhood served by Comcast) sparked an interest in and dissatisfaction with local government that led him to seek public office.

Kudos to Alvarez for putting the committee together and thanks to all of its members for donating their talents and time to the community.

The county has done little on the broadband issue since a 2008 study, which cost about $50,000. Bowden suggested its information be used as the jumping off point for the committee’s work. He suggested that an assessment be made of what’s in place because some towers that had been approved were never built due to the economic downturn.
County staff will provide the initial background data.

Once the preliminaries were dealt with, the discussion began in earnest and the intellectual synergy among the participants blossomed. This will only get better going forward.

One pointed out that bandwidth should be considered because satellite systems do not provide sufficient bandwidth to stream movies, or meetings of the committee. This is ironic because those most interested in improving broadband access are probably unable to access the meetings this way.

Others said that reasonable cost is important without quite defining “reasonable.”

Kevin Hazzard, who is also the District 2 school board member, suggested basic criteria of high speed, low latency and reasonable cost. Latency is the maddening delay that occurs between the time that a URL is entered and a page begins to load.
Alvarez said that a diverse set of solutions may be the answer as Goochland is not a “one size fits all” kind of place. This could include requiring new subdivisions to install cable or fiber to entice providers and identifying prime sites for additional tower wireless applications.

The new, improved planning commission has met twice and is focusing on the business of sound land use practices. Recently appointed members come to meetings prepared and offer thoughtful, informed comments on agenda matters.
In addition to organizational information provided by Sales, principal planner Tom Coleman walked the planning commission through an overview of land use in Goochland at its May 17 meeting.

At its June meeting, the planning commission will hold a workshop on “dark sky” lighting regulations and electronic signs. Both subjects have been overlooked for too long.

As the planning commission grapples with the intrusive nature of light and high tech signs, perhaps it will also attempt to define “rural.”

To protect the “rural character” everyone loves, it must be clearly defined to craft protective measures.
Goochland’s problems have not changed, but the new perspective and energy directed to finding solutions instead of moaning about our troubles is cause for optimism.

1 comment:

Pat said...

I attended this meeting as an observer, and it's a good start, but there are some basics that need to be settled. First - what is the definition of broadband? One person wanted a very high speed service with no usage charges, but for the poor slob with dial-up, a broadband service that lets them do basic browsing, get homework assignments and perform basic research - even if they can't play movies without incurring other charges, that would be a vast improvement. Also, the idea that satellite can't deliver movies is invalid - that's what DirectTV and Dish Network do, albeit with different technology. Latency has no effect on movies delivered over the Internet and with sufficient bandwidth satellite does this all the time. Latency is only a problem for interactive two-way traffic such as VoIP (voice over IP), webcams, and most of all, interactive gaming. When you're a half second behind the other shooters, you're dead! LOL. Latency has no effect on movies or other streaming content. It takes a half second longer to start, but once the stream is flowing, it flows continuously.

There is a new generation of satellites being launched that will provide much lower latency and should go live in mid-2013. Most communications satellites today are in GEO (geosynchronous) orbits 22,300 miles high, and latency is the result of light only going 186,000 miles per second. It takes 1/2 second to send a signal up to a satellite, down to the earth, then back again because of the distance - have your school kid do the math as a fun exercise. I was excited by the recent news that neutrinos might be faster than light - alas it was not to be - simply a loose cable! The newer fleet of satellites are in MEO (mid-earth) orbits and they will have much lower latency - but they are designed for backhaul or large organizations, rather than for individual residential service. You would use them to connect a wireless base station servicing a neighborhood for example, back to the Internet over the MEO satellite, with greatly reduced latency - but still not what you get over terrestrial fiber or copper.

Another speaker mentioned the problem with VPNs (virtual private networks such as IPSec) that don't work well over satellite. Again this is a result of the latency - but there are solutions to provide what we call pre-acceleration for VPNs to overcome the latency. Residential satellite services such as WildBlue and HughesNet will work with VPNs if you have these pre-acceleration appliances - although they do add a little cost.

Other things that need to be better identified are the differences between "last mile" and "backhaul" as both issues must be solved in order to deliver a service.

The key is to create a market, and then the big boys will come in and take it over with superior, less costly technology; but they need a critical mass to justify the expense for the infrastructure. Without treating broadband as a government supported utility, it's going to be a challenge. The committee should start by looking to see how other communities have solved the problem, and I'm sure they will.

But it's great that the attempt is being made to move forward! In case you haven't figured it out - I'm in the broadband satellite biz (for businesses, not residents) and would be happy to answer any questions about this technology.