Sunday, September 2, 2012

Desperately seeking broadband

Volunteer committee searches for options

Editor’s note: This entry of GOMM was intended for publication on August 14. Due to a poor internet connection, the entry  has been revised.

Goochland is a land of contrasts.

A “digital divide” separates the county into those that have access to broadband and those that do not. Homes without internet access are more difficult to sell. Students have trouble keeping pace with their “connected” peers. Residents who could work from home over high speed connections must trek to their offices instead. Small businesses that need broadband to operate competitively go elsewhere.

Until recently, dial-up was the only avenue to internet access for much of the county. Thanks to wireless devices, improved speed is now available in areas served by cell towers. Results are spotty and vary widely.

Since spring, the Goochland High Speed Internet Committee GHSIC,) comprised of volunteers with professional telecommunications expertise, has worked to document broadband availability throughout the county and craft recommendations about the situation. District 2 Supervisor Manuel Alvarez, Jr. was elected chair and Marshall Bowden vice chair of the GHSIC.

Town hall meetings to share the findings of the committee so far and gather input from citizens were recently held at Byrd School and the Centerville Company 3 fire-rescue station.

While a significant number of eastern Goochlanders have broadband access through Comcast, many do not. One man at the Company 3 meeting explained that he has public water and sewer, but no high speed internet access.

Data presented at a recent GHSIC meeting showed that 2.6 percent of Henrico residents do not have access to Broadband while 69.9 percent of Goochlanders are in the same boat.

The GHSIC decided that its primary goal was to find strategies to bring a reasonable speed of broadband at a reasonable price to most of Goochland. They’re still seeking exact definitions of those goals.

The GHSIC used information included in the broadband study conducted by the county in 2008 as its starting point. (Go to the county website under broadband efforts to see the complete report. Recordings of all meetings may be found there too.)

For some parts of Goochland, satellite may be the only option. In other areas, wireless equipment will provide internet access, but not the superfast speed needed for online gaming or sophisticated business applications.

Meeting every few weeks, the GHSIC has gathered, with the help of staff, detailed data about existing broadband availability. These maps are on the website. Past meetings have included presentations by Verizon and people with real world experience in deploying broadband in rural areas.

While Goochland sits in a geographical sweet spot for transportation, we are in a definite “sour” spot for universal broadband deployment.

We are too urban to qualify for rural broadband initiatives yet too sparsely settled in most of the county to easily entice either Verizon or Comcast to plant cables.

Verizon representatives explained that their company’s financial allocation to deploy FIOS nationwide is nearly depleted and will not be replenished. The company has decided it’s “a wireless world” and will invest accordingly.

One Verizon representative actually said out loud, in public, that his company has “looked hungrily at Goochland residents” as new customers. He explained the Verizon Home Fusion system, which is a stand-alone fixed device that provides wireless broadband, could supply broadband to many homes in the county. Responses to questions about cost and distance form towers were a little vague. He said that 4G should be deployed throughout Goochland by the end of 2013.

The fly in the wireless ointment may be a dearth of towers. Creating a map of existing towers to identify dead spots was a high priority task for the group.

Some residents in extreme western Goochland, those in the 434 area code, reported that they have quite acceptable broadband through their telephone provider, which is not Verizon.

Committee members reported that the distribution of bandwidth and other telecommunications infrastructure resulting from the breakup of the old “Ma Bell” have created roadblocks to some internet deployment.

Comcast, the sole wire in the ground cable and broadband provider in Goochland, is under no obligation to add customers that do not fit its corporate guidelines. State regulatory laws regarding cable deployment as well as the local contract with Comcast give the county no leverage in the matter.

Cable customers are generally east of Route 522, although there is a line that goes up sparsely populated Cedar Plains Road, Comcast has shown little interest in connecting the Mill Forest community.

Most meetings of the GHSIC were streamed live and recordings are available on the website. Unfortunately, the folks without broadband, who have the most interest in the subject, were not able to follow along this way. The files can be downloaded, but this could take a while. (GOMM’s connection took more than 18 minutes to download the July session, for example.)

The GHSIC hopes to create a broadband options database so that residents can weigh their options and find some connectivity.

Finding a way to help most residents access the internet in an affordable manner will be tricky. The county has no money, and little inclination, to get into the broadband business.

Although it has become an important part of 21st century life, broadband is not a regulated utility, which, though frustrating, is a good thing in the long run. The private sector can respond to changes in technology far faster when not burdened with cumbersome regulation.

The GHSIC is expected to present its finding and recommendations to the board of supervisors in October. The report will contain no silver bullet easy solution to the problem. Goochland has never been a one size fits all place. The broadband solution will be no different. Some residents’ only option may be satellite, others wireless.

Thanks to the GHSIC members for giving their time and talents to the community.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Sandie, you said, "Although it has become an important part of 21st century life, broadband is not a regulated utility, which, though frustrating, is a good thing in the long run. The private sector can respond to changes in technology far faster when not burdened with cumbersome regulation."

I used to agree with this, but I'm wavering. There are some things that government can do or can facilitate that private industry cannot or will not do. Would we have electricity and telephone to every home if not for government intervention?

The trick of course is that in order to get the government to assist, those who already have service will be asked to support those who do not have it through their taxes - and that is where it all grinds to a halt, because in the final analysis our current culture is not leading us to unity - but instead in the other direction. Time to go back to E Pluribus Unum.