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Rural Broadband Competitors Come to the Table to Talk Last-Mile Solutions

Pamela D'Angelo

Virginia prizes its rural communities; from farmer's markets to vineyards, to oyster trails. But, those same communities still aren't connected to affordable high-speed internet, making it hard for everyone from small businesses to students trying to do homework. Now, one region is looking into a unique partnership to get it done.

High school senior Shelby Bihm drives three times a day to the Northumberland Public Library where she parks outside and uses the Wi-Fi.

“I just come here to use it because we can't get it down our road.” 

Bihm lives along a river, where trees and even tides can interfere with wireless connections and it's so far from the main road customers can't afford the price providers require to lay broadband cables. Like most teens, she needs the internet for homework and to stay connected with friends. 

“A lot of people come here at night to get on the Wi-Fi, no lie.”

The Northumberland Public Library is the only publicly available internet in the county. Director Alice Cooper says other libraries in the Northern Neck are providing the same service.

“It's an economic as well as a geographic problem. We found more than 50 percent of our county does not have access to high-speed internet at their home.”

Nationwide, 39 percent of rural communities, or about 23 million people lack broadband access, compared with only 4 percent of urban Americans. Costs to providers is the biggest hurdle. Just to rent telephone poles for their equipment can be $2 per pole per month down rural roads, that may have only a couple of houses.

Local governments, tired of waiting, are starting to set up their own internet service. And that’s spurred private companies into action. Last month, for the first time, a Northern Neck broadband provider and a wireless provider, normally competitors, sat down to talk with local and federal officials about partnerships.

"A lot of people come here at night to get on the Wi-Fi, no lie."

Danny Jobe is with MetroCast, a company that’s already laid down cable right up to those so-called last miles.

“Frankly, the easy part's been done. We're to the hard part now. It's going to take a lot of different methods to get there.”

One way to get down those rural roads is by working with Virginia Broadband, a wireless company. An added bonus for working together now, access to federal money for companies willing to solve this problem at a fair cost to subscribers. Joe Lenig, head of sales and marketing for Virginia Broadband, says counties want to get this done.

“Quite honestly they're tired of hearing their constituents yelling at them about getting internet. But they are a government entity and we are a private entity and you have to go through processes to get that done through taxpayer dollars.”

And there are the aging landline phones that will slowly be replaced by fiber and other new technologies.

“We both see the need that these people in rural areas, they need it. They are going to be losing their copper phone line infrastructure. So, they are going to be losing their lifeline, their phone line, they need internet for multiple reasons. As for-profit companies we have to watch our bottom line but by the same token we have to be stewards of the community and we have to figure this out together.”

Back at the library, Alice Cooper has devised another way to bring her patrons high-speed internet – a new mobile library, the first in the region. At $5,000 a year, it's expensive but it means less trips up the road for users like Shelby Bihm. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from theVirginia Education Association.