Thursday, October 4, 2012

Can't never could

A night of new beginnings

After years of impotent shrugs from county officials on matters like the Tuckahoe Creek Service District debt and dearth of Broadband in Goochland, our new supervisors rolled up their sleeves after taking office and sought new answers for old, and seemingly un-answerable, questions.

During the evening session of its October 2 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to authorize the sale of new bonds to finance part of the debt and heard the report of the Goochland High Speed Internet Committee (GHSIC.)

Both of these agenda items are the product of a new way of addressing the challenges that face Goochland. Neither initiative offers a magic bullet solution, but each is an important piece of a large and complicated puzzle.

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the new bonds will go to pricing on October 25, before the election, which is critical to take advantage of the current favorable interest rates. She said that the plan is “the very best transaction on the table.” This is a long term solution that is expected to reduce out year costs by 30 percent.

Board vice Chair, Ken Peterson, who is a key member of the county finance team, said that the initiative is a pivotal piece of solving the TCSD problem. He expressed appreciation for the cooperation of the new management at the Virginia Resources Authority for its willingness to cooperate in the plan.

Details of the plan are included in the October 2 board packet, which is on the county website.

Compared to broadband deployment to the entire county, complicated financial matters seem straightforward.

In the past decade or so, the internet has changed our world. The low population density of rural areas is unattractive to private sector providers who need high numbers of customers per wire mile to be profitable.

The GHSIC, which was created by the Supervisors in April, was formally disbanded on Tuesday. Working subgroups will continue to play a part in ongoing tasks. These include compiling requests for information, which has the side benefit of letting providers know that Goochland is a potential customer; and requests for proposals to obtain some realistic costs for possible solutions.

All members of the GHSIC are to be commended for their generous donation of copious amounts of time and expertise to the project. GHSIC vice chair Marshall Bowden, who presented the report to the supervisors, pointed out that many members of the committee have broadband access in their homes, making their efforts a true community service.

Included in the report, which is available at:, are cost estimates for countywide broadband deployment.

Please note that these numbers are for information only. They range from $14.5 million for fiber to home to $1.4 million in construction costs for seven new towers that would make wireless options accessible to most homes in sparsely populated areas.

Relax. Aside from that fact that Goochland has no money for such expenditures, the supervisors have given no indication that they believe the county should get into the broadband business.

Bowden explained that success in rural broadband deployment is related to access to large sums of money like tobacco settlements or collaboration with existing utility infrastructure. Goochland has neither. To further complicate matters, we have too many people and too much wealth to be eligible for rural broadband initiatives.

GHSIC recommendations include adopting a multifaceted approach. That means that some places will be able to connect to Comcast, others have increasing alternative options including Verizon wireless and satellite providers. The drawback on the last two methods is that they do not provide consistent speed. Wireless connection speeds fluctuate dramatically depending on the number of users accessing a particular tower and weather conditions.

The GHSIC began its work by reviewing the Broadband study of 2008, but worked to compile its own list of existing communications assets. Mapping the location of fiber in the ground was more difficult. In the past few weeks, committee members discovered high capacity fiber lines throughout the county. They are still trying to figure out who owns them. Curiously, the county has no record of these lines, but VDOT right-of-way permits may offer clues.

While there is fiber running along Rtes. 250 and 6, access to this is very restricted. Bowden compared this fiber to an interstate highway with no on ramps. Finding ways to gain access to this fiber will be a delicate, and ongoing, task.

Bowden said that the county needs to create an environment that encourages collaboration with local businesses and private sector providers as well as find and actively pursue grant and other funding opportunities to “be bold and innovative” regarding broadband.

The county’s role in extending the reach of broadband to the entire county is that of a catalyst. This could include short term funding of some towers, or simply easing the rezoning process to ready a tower site. Anything to encourage and attract the private sector to invest in Goochland should be actively pursued.

In the past few years, several subdivisions have successfully negotiated to bring Comcast to their neighborhoods. Every time this happens and lines are extended, it raises the possibility of adding other users in a sort of capillary action.

The county can act as a clearing house for information sharing about broadband options throughout the county to help citizens find the best solution for their area.

Going forward, the county, with help from GHSIC working groups, will be open to the possibilities provided by changes in technology and an improving economy.

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