County ‘moving quickly’ to bring broadband to Surry homes, businesses

By Michael Campbell, News Editor
May 24, 2017 | 12:45 p.m.

SURRY – County officials have reiterated their commitment to move expeditiously with bringing broadband internet to Surry homes and businesses, even after key grant funding from the state didn’t materialize in Surry’s favor.

Through a report delivered to the Surry Board of Supervisors by county attorney William Hefty, he offered optimistic news about the county’s broadband efforts while offering an option that could allow for services to be live at the homes and businesses of some in Surry as soon as September.

Hefty proposed that the county enters into an “economic incentive agreement” with SCS Broadband, the company Surry is working with to act as the internet service provider for the project, in an effort to “provide broadband service to the citizens much more expeditiously.”

As part of the proposed agreement, Hefty explained that the county would have to look at providing funding to help allow service from the county’s tower in the Surry West Business Park reach the end users, home and business subscribers in the county, typically referred to as the “last-mile,” after Surry failed to receive grant funding from the state earlier this year.

According to documents, Surry and SCS Broadband submitted an application to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development seeking $65,524 in state grant dollars through its Virginia Telecommunications Initiative that would have been used by SCS for equipment and “the labor required to provision and manage the project and one year of leasing costs” that would have seen the equipment deployed on a pair of existing towers in the county.

The grant would have allowed for SCS to upgrade the broadband equipment from Wi-Fi-based technology to “LTE technology, which provides speeds well about the grant requirements” and the “inclusion of additional high-cost equipment, such as backup generators and security systems.”

Company officials said the proposed network design would allow for SCS to offer subscription services to business and residents ranging from 10-100 Mbps down, and with the current generation of fiber network equipment, LTE, speeds of up to 1 Gbps, while upload speeds would be “open to availability by location, with a minimum of 1Mbps and a maximum of 20Mbps.”

“As a more advanced technology designed specifically for outdoors, LTE signals can hold higher modulation levels in the face of obstruction,” SCS explained. “LTE also does a better job of aggregating the various reflections from leaves and still provides high levels of throughput.”

In March, the governor’s office announced that Albemarle, Augusta, Bland, Gloucester, and Greensville counties were all selected to receive a combined $945,000 in grant funding through VATI, leaving Surry and a number of other communities on the sidelines.

In a statement on the county’s website days later, administrative staff noted the directive from supervisors to “commence negotiating with SCS Broadband, Inc. … to develop a public-private partnership to launch broadband subscription services in Surry County post-haste!”

“[Planning Director Rhonda] Russell has been working on this project for a long time with very good results, but when we didn’t get the grant we asked the state for, that sort of set us back a little bit,” Hefty said.

As part of the effort to move past the grant application denial, Hefty said this proposal would allow the county to provide the funding to put up their equipment at the tower at the industrial park and connect to Surry’s current fiber infrastructure.

While he said county staff considered issuing a request for proposals from firms what would be willing to come into Surry and offer internet service to homes and businesses, the reality many rural localities are facing is a lack of ISPs wishing to make such a commitment.

“They are the only game in town right now,” Hefty said of SCS Broadband. “There’s nobody else that’s come to us and said, ‘We’re going to be interested in doing broadband for the citizens in Surry.'”

Arrington-based SCS Broadband has been one of the few companies willing to make the investment. According to the county’s grant application for VATI, SCS lists a number of localities where they have service relationships of between three to ten years, including Amherst, Albemarle, and Nelson counties, along with additional references in Powhatan, Dinwiddie, Charles City, Bedford and Buckingham counties.

Hefty notes that this plan will not provide countywide internet coverage and hopes that is something that can be addressed going forward.

“It is a substantial part of the county,” he remarked.

In their grant application, Surry officials cited their Broadband Community Broadband Planning Study in 2009 when they said the deployment of broadband infrastructure via a combination of fiber and wireless technologies “would serve a total of 86 businesses, 3,066 persons, and 1,186 households” with initial subscriber estimates of “720 households, or approximately 2,100” of the county’s 6,765 residents according to 2013 Census data.

The application notes that “additional capacity can be added to towers to double” the number of initial subscribers to to 4,200 in “a follow-up project funded by SCS Broadband.”

With this proposal, it is unknown how many potential customers would be covered under the single-tower rollout of wireless internet coverage.

During this month’s board meeting, Hefty said county staff will work to develop a contract for the board to see prior to their June meeting, where it will be formally presented for consideration.

As part of the proposed contract, Hefty listed some safeguards that would be negotiated, such as a provision that says, if for some reason SCS Broadband “went bankrupt or stopped providing service,” the county would get to keep the equipment that would be affixed to their tower, requiring that rates be published so prospective customers and subscribers know what those rates are, and other requirements tied to speed.

If the board agrees to the contract, it would then move over to the county’s economic development authority for additional work and research.

“It’s the way to get broadband here as quickly as possible, which we thought the directive from the Board was,” Hefty remarked.

The matter is expected to be discussed at the county’s regular board meeting on June 1.

Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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