With broadband expansion a continued county priority, and with efforts accelerated by the pandemic and millions in federal funding, Campbell County looks toward a plan to deliver fiber broadband to area homes, a multimillion-dollar endeavor that could bring internet access to the most remote areas of the county.
On Tuesday, supervisors were presented a broadband expansion plan from RiverStreet Networks, a North Carolina-based internet service provider the county contracted with six months ago to develop a countywide fiber-to-the-home engineering plan.
The report was paid for by about $60,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.
“This isn’t a study, this isn’t a, ‘What would it be like if we had internet?’ This is, ‘How do we get there?’ ‘How do we build it?’” said Robert Taylor, business development manager with RiverStreet. “This is a blueprint.”
Taylor said he believed the county would benefit from a “fiber backbone,” an effort to reach those who are considered unserved or underserved and provide a blueprint to build a reliable broadband network.
The plan’s goal is to explore what it takes to bring “ubiquitous broadband internet to Campbell County,” Taylor said.
Fiber internet uses optical fiber cables to form a broadband connection that is faster than some other methods, and ensures speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, the minimum for an internet service to be considered “broadband” by Federal Communications Commission.
The report states RiverStreets believes broadband service should be made available to everyone at a reasonable price, with speeds of at least 100 Mbps upload and download.
Taylor said fiber is the best mechanism to reach everyone on equal footing, ensuring consistent speeds and access for all users.
County Administrator Frank Rogers called this “a way forward” for fiber in the county, and said it will help to identify the next steps in the continued effort to expand broadband.
“Fiber is the high standard that we would like to see,” Rogers said. While a variety of technologies will continue to be applied throughout the county to grow broadband access, he said fiber was the benchmark they should strive for.
Rogers said the county is in the early stages of its conversation with RiverStreet, and will examine how a potential project could be phased in and implemented, as well as identifying various funding sources.
He said the report is a “critical element” for future grant applications. The county also anticipates about $10.7 million in federal funds over the next several years from the American Rescue Plan, money which could be dedicated to broadband, if the board chose to do so.
RiverStreet already has secured $4.4 million dedicated to several areas in Campbell County through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, an area that encompasses almost 3,000 homes. In order to move forward with these funds, it likely would require additional investments, such as a partnership with the county.
Taylor walked the board through several potential fiber build-outs, from an $80 million scenario that encompassed the entirety of the county over 1,597 miles, to a $55 million build-out that excluded the most high-density areas — Timberlake, and the towns of Altavista and Brookneal.
One potential scenario involved building only 196 miles of fiber to create the “backbone” connecting all of the county service areas — from Naruna, to Red House Road, to Concord, through the outskirts of Lynchburg, to Wards Road and Lynch Station. This option, with a price tag of about $9.6 million, would pass about 1,500 homes, and require the county to build out further as it identified communities in need and secured the capital.
Rogers recognized countywide fiber is a “long-term goal,” and many more conversations will occur as staff and supervisors examine the plan. He said it’s great to have the report in hand, but the challenge is how to put it in action.
He told supervisors Tuesday he would continue the conversation with RiverStreet, figure out next steps and then schedule a follow-up work session.
The big question, he said, was, “How much do we want to put into this to move the needle, and how quickly?”
Also on Tuesday, supervisors heard from Warren Kane, CEO of Salem-based internet provider B2X Online, working to reach more than 2,000 homes in underserved and unserved areas of the county.
At the February meeting, supervisors were skeptical when they learned that after $1.4 million invested in the project, and months of anticipation, only 28 households were online of the 129 with equipment installed.
On Tuesday, Kane announced all but one of the company’s towers were installed, active and had customers attached, and 101 households were online and receiving service.
He said B2X was activating internet access for three to five customers daily and has 140 households preinstalled with equipment at this time.
The Campbell County Board of Supervisors will next meet April 12 to discuss the issue of litter in the county.