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Rural Floyd Enjoys the Flash of High Speed Internet

Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ

Floyd, Virginia has long been known for its arts scene, particularly live music.  But residents, businesses, and visitors also know the rural mountain town offers something they may not see elsewhere–internet that’s as good or better than what they’ve used in many densely populated cities.

Floyd Music School co-founder Mike Mitchell says giving lessons to students through video chat has become a regular part of his schedule – roughly half of them are taught via the web.

“Believe it or not, I’m the Suzuki violin teacher at the Pecos Elementary School in Texas,” said Mitchell.  His students include Everett Hadaway of Canadian, Texas.

Credit Mike Mitchell
Floyd Music School's Mike Mitchell conducts a lesson via the web with Everett Hadaway of Canadian, Texas.

Mitchell and his colleagues have taught others in Florida and Missouri – and as far away as Denmark and Saudi Arabia.

“I was able to have such an early start that I’ve built significant portion of my studio business on line, when others are just now getting involved, and just now getting into it,” Mitchell said.

Citizens Telephone Cooperative has served Floyd County since 1914, and has kept up to date with technology, providing broadband since 2001.  But CEO and General Manager Greg Sapp says the laying of fiber optic cable at 1G speed, or one gigabit per second, will far exceed what many are used to, even for larger cities in the area.

“We want our customers to experience no penalty for living in a rural area when it comes to their technology and telecommunications needs,” said Sapp, who says Citizens already holds an advantage since it’s not a publicly traded company, concerned with short-term profits.

“If this was a project that we said ‘ok, we’ve got to have a payback period of two years on this – it would never happen,” he said. “It would never get done.”

Citizens Telephone is taking advantage of $10-million in federal funds through the Alternative Connect America Model, which lets the company get some help in its buildout of fiber optic lines.

The 1G broadband connections have reaped benefits not only for residents and local business, but also education.

“It is kind of a tipping point time – not only in public education in the state, but also in the job market,” said Floyd County Schools Superintendent John Wheeler, who said the improved wi-fi has encouraged the district to pursue a $17-million career development center

He said it will including evening courses for adults, help graduates seeking work out of high school, and line up others with area universities.

“We need more experiences for our students, and we need more specialized space,” Wheeler said. “And that specialized space involved very high-end technology.”

Greg Sapp says Citizens plans to have 60% of homes in Floyd County connected to the new fiber optic lines by the end of this year, and 97% of them by the end of 2021.

He says the company is required to reach those milestones, or risks returning the $10-million in federal funds, with penalties.  But Sapp says that’s why it plans to have the work done in half the time.

The future of the Alternative Connect America Model is also is question. Sapp says funding beyond 2026 is unclear.

“Regardless of the outcome, we bet our future on fiber and we think that is a good bet any way you look at it,” he said.

Lydeana Martin is Floyd County’s Community and Economic Development Director.  She says the area has become a place where those in the corporate world can semi-retire, and do a little work on the side. 

“And they would maintain a consulting business based in their home, and they would fly out a couple times a month,” Martin said. “So we’ve always been able to support people that are used to being in an urban area, but they needed the technology to connect them.”

Credit Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
The Floyd Innovation Center opened in 2014, and helps five local businesses do much of their work online.

Martin says there’s always been a knock against Floyd’s lack of access to an interstate or rail line, but now talks to others who envy the technology there.

“In the past, people have tried to frame us into a little box based on the number of lanes of roads that come in here, but now through fiber and glass, it’s an unlimited connection to the world,” she said.

Virginia’s chief broadband advisor, Evan Feinman, says a day doesn’t go by that another city doesn’t reach out to him - seeking help through Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant program.

“There is no one silver bullet,” he said. “Other communities have different disadvantages and advantages, and I want them to work with my team to put those pieces together in successful a fashion as possible.”

But Feinman also praises Floyd, saying the community has put the pieces together "in truly masterful fashion."

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.