Pittsylvania County’s unique approach to solving broadband challenges

Pittsylvania County is taking a unique approach to one of the biggest challenges of expanding broadband in rural areas: the upfront cost of the infrastructure.

“Who should pay for the infrastructure?” is a common question when it comes to broadband expansion, said Rebecca Watts, regional vice president of Western Governors University, who serves on the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Workforce and Education Executive Committee.

“Should it be the providers that are using that infrastructure to sell a service to those households?” Watts said. “Should it be local government, treating it almost like a public utility so that they’re putting the infrastructure in place and then allowing service providers to use the infrastructure? Or should it be on the backs or on the wallets of the users?”

This is especially challenging as broadband infrastructure is often more expensive in rural areas than urban areas, because of greater distance between homes and more cable that needs to be laid, she said.

Because of this, federal and state dollars are important sources of funding to broadband expansion, Watts said.

But in Pittsylvania County, where there are at least 12,000 homes with inadequate internet access, a three-way partnership is addressing the upfront cost of broadband infrastructure while waiting for more money from the state government.

The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, the Pittsylvania County School Board and RiverStreet Networks, a North-Carolina based network provider that has expanded operations to Virginia, are working together to fund broadband infrastructure.

The board of supervisors is putting in $11 million, $6.5 million of which came from the American Rescue Plan Act funds, with the remaining $4.5 million coming from revenue sharing agreements.

The school board is providing $5.5 million in ARPA funds, and RiverStreet Networks will provide up to a $19.5 million match.

And after a $39.1 million grant award from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development in December 2021, the total project cost comes to $75 million.

This project, which will reach about 12,000 unserved locations by 2025, is actually the hub of a larger, multi-locality project with the West Piedmont District Planning Commision, said Caleb Ayers, former public relations manager for Pittsylvania County.

“Pittsylvania County is technically working in concert with several surrounding localities and the West Piedmont District Planning Commision on this project with RiverStreet,” Ayers said.

This partnership came about after RiverStreet Networks purchased a telephone company in Gretna in 2018.

After that, the network provider had “a vested interest in Pittsylvania County and Southside Virginia,” said Rob Taylor, director of business development and government affairs for RiverStreet Networks.

It was beneficial to join these three groups together because of the scale of the project in Pittsylvania, Taylor said. The amount of locations passed and fiber miles built in Pittsylvania exceeds each of the other counties RiverStreet Networks is working in.

“Due to the vast size and rural nature of Pittsylvania County, there is a significant cost to build a fiber network throughout most of the county,” Taylor said. “With RSN’s help, the county and school board recognized quickly that pooling funds could reach more citizens and students.”

Ayers said that the upfront cost of the infrastructure is one of the reasons that internet service to many Pittsylvania residents has been delayed for years.

“Expanding quality internet into rural areas presents an inherent challenge, because the return on investment for private companies isn’t there,” Ayers said. “It takes a diverse group of organizations and governments and several funding streams to make this project financially viable.”

Watts said a partnership of this kind is uncommon.

“It’s unique, and I wish it wasn’t,” she said. “I wish that more counties were following that model. I think [Pittsylvania] can be a role model for everybody coming to the table together…that’s really the solution.”

Pittsylvania is the largest county in Virginia by square mileage, but it is also one of the least densely populated.

The areas highlighted in blue indicate places where at least 80% of residents have the minimum internet speed of 3 megabits per second upload and 25 megabits per second download. Pittsylvania County is circled in red. Map courtesy of Commonwealth Connection.
The areas highlighted in blue indicate places where at least 80% of residents have internet speeds of 100 megabits per second upload and 20 megabits per second download, which is considered a more adequate speed. Pittsylvania County is circled in red. Map courtesy of Commonwealth Connection.

According to Commonwealth Connection, an online interactive map of Virginia’s broadband access, large swaths in the middle of the county are without access. The northernmost parts of the county are somewhat covered, as are the southernmost parts, near the City of Danville.

But this is only the case for the slowest upload and download speed: 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. Anything faster than that, and most of Pittsylvania is not covered.

“You’ve got to at least meet 25 over 3 in order to qualify as a broadband service provider,” said Dave Arnold, assistant county administrator for Pittsylvania, in a county podcast from October 2021, during earlier stages of the partnership.

“But RiverStreet Networks has agreed that they can provide 100 over 100 megabits per second, which is clearly heads and shoulders above 25,” Arnold said.

Higher internet speeds are important, especially today, said Taylor with RiverStreet.

“The pandemic has highlighted the fact that the internet is not just used for entertainment,” he said. “It is also needed for remote working or teleworking, remote learning, remote healthcare or telemedicine, and access to goods and services to include basic consumables.”

Watts agreed, saying that broadband should be treated as a necessity, like any other utility.

“I would argue that access to broadband, like any other utility, is essential,” she said. “You have to have access to broadband to really be able to thrive in the 21st century.”

Take Nelson County, for example, which is closing in on universal broadband access. Not coincidentally, Nelson County also has the highest work-from-home percentage in Virginia. 

Remote work would be nearly impossible without reliable internet access. This is another reason why broadband is important in rural communities especially, Watts said.

“[Rural communities] need access to education. They need access to remote work opportunities,” she said. “They need access to telehealth, to legal services, to government agencies. It’s something that probably the rest of us take for granted.”

The list of counties with limited broadband.
The list of counties with limited broadband. The numbers are population. Courtesy of Rebecca Watts.

Watts sent Cardinal a list of 20 counties in Virginia that have little or no broadband access, in no particular order. Adding up their populations, Watts found that there are about half a million people without reliable internet access.

Pittsylvania is included on this list, and has the second highest population, with almost 60,000 residents. And it is one of many rural areas that continues to see out-migration, Watts pointed out.

“That continues to happen in rural communities, in part because they don’t have access to the resources they need to have a holistic, healthy, happy life,” she said, and today, internet is a big part of that.

Construction on RiverStreet’s fiber to the home project has already started with one of the contractors, with another one to begin construction soon. Materials have been arriving to the network provider’s local lay yard over the last several months, Taylor said.

Pittsylvania County launched a survey a few months ago so residents could tell the county about the internet service they have or don’t have, Ayers said.

“This is not information that we plan to distribute to the public, but it will help us in future grant applications to expand internet access even further,” he said.

A survey will be helpful in gathering more reliable data about internet access, Ayers said. Access is typically represented by census blocks, he said, meaning that “if one person in a census block is reported to have reliable internet access from a particular provider, then the whole block is said to have access.”

But even once the infrastructure is in place, that’s not the end of the story, said Watts.

“It doesn’t maintain itself,” she said. “It will need long-term maintenance. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. government sets up maintenance funds, or if that’s going to be left up to the providers or local governments.”

Despite the long road ahead, the process is finally underway, and Ayers said that the local partnership will see it through.

“Pittsylvania County and RiverStreet have been working closely and diligently to keep this process moving as fast as reasonably possible, but there are a lot of steps we have to take,” he said.

Broadband definitions:

Rob Taylor, of RiverStreet Networks, explains technical terms involved in this “fiber to the home” project.

What is fiber?

Fiber is thin strands of glass, close to the diameter of a piece of hair, that allow massive amounts of data transmitted across them at the speed of light using lasers.

What does fiber to the home mean?

Fiber to the home (FTTH) or Fiber to the premise (FTTP) are industry terms that means each location (home and/or business) passed by the network will have the ability to have a fiber strand connected to their home or business. This fiber is then spliced and cross connected across the network via fiber switches to a location that provides access to the Internet.

How is that different from wireless internet access?

Wireless Internet access is typically shared bandwidth between multiple point to multipoint users/subscribers (PMP). The sharing of this bandwidth is typically done at the radio on the tower or at a switch at the base of the tower. Since the sharing point is so close to the subscriber their Internet speeds often suffer when multiple users on that tower are online at the same time. Fiber extends the need to share that bandwidth out much further, thereby eliminating the drop in bandwidth levels when multiple users are online at the same time.

by GRACE MAMON is a reporter for Cardinal News.