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Albemarle County evaluates its broadband future
Fiber optic cables
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by Brian Wheeler | Tuesday, August 05, 2014 at 10:39 a.m.

SECOND IN A SERIES

One year ago, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors convened a Broadband Task Force to evaluate the community’s need for faster Internet access, to analyze deployment approaches and to identify funding options.

Since then, Albemarle County has set a goal of getting high-speed Internet to underserved portions of the community, largely in the rural areas where broadband Internet is less available.

In advance of a work session to plan next steps, those involved with the effort have a unified view of the importance of greater access to broadband, but not necessarily the path to get there.

The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology has assisted the task force and helped conduct a citizen broadband survey. The Board of Supervisors will receive the results of the survey Wednesday.

“Every conversation about broadband is held because the goal is to improve community life in areas like health care, education, economic development, and that includes support for home businesses, and public safety,” said Sandie Terry, the group’s broadband program manager.  “All of those components are what we focus on improving.”

“That means you have your citizens leveraging broadband to improve their education and economic status in life, which in turn improves the community,” said Terry.

“Albemarle County needs to take action
on the broadband problem,” said Fooks.
“Neighboring counties are doing things
and have solutions either underway or
already operating.”

Baylor Fooks, co-owner of Charlottesville-based Blue Ridge Internetworks, a private-sector participant in the task force, questions whether Albemarle’s approach is one that will position it to be successful getting federal grant funds for a municipal fiber optic network.

“Albemarle County needs to take action on the broadband problem,” said Fooks.  “Neighboring counties are doing things and have solutions either underway or already operating.”

BRI is known for building the network that provides wireless Internet on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall and in 2013 the firm was selected as a provider for Nelson County’s new rural broadband network.

Nelson County, in less than two years, has fiber optic broadband to 100 residents and its growth is accelerating,” said Fooks.  “People are able to work from home, enjoy streaming video as alternatives to high priced satellite services and their kids can do their homework.  Property values are going to reflect the availability of broadband or lack thereof.”

Fooks hopes Albemarle can leverage public-private partnerships, solicit competitive bids for technology, and refocus the role of local government as it seeks to deliver broadband Internet connections to homes, schools and businesses.

THREE COMPLEX PROJECTS

Michael Culp, Albemarle’s information technology director, has been facilitating the work of the broadband task force.  He says a key challenge for the public and local officials is differentiating the technology initiatives on the table.

“There is a large sense of confusion on this whole issue,” said Culp. “There’s a huge difference between the school division’s fiber project…and what the community development department is doing with ‘phase 2 wireless’ versus the broadband task force.”

Local Internet service providers like BRI, CenturyLink, Comcast, AT&T and Ntelos have all had representatives at the task force meetings.  

As part of what is known as the “personal wireless service facilities phase 2” evaluation, area wireless providers have been asking Albemarle to streamline the approval process so more towers can be erected to satisfy growing demand for mobile data services.

“There are really three complex issues all going on at once,” Culp explained. “The phase 2 wireless and ability for service providers to petition for new services on existing tower sites is one. That plays into whether the broadband task force can be successful in expanding broadband [via the wireless towers].”

FIBER, COPPER AND WIRELESS

“CenturyLink currently provides broadband
to approximately 95 percent of Albemarle
County,” said Simone Alley, CenturyLink’s
market development manager

Wireless is one way to reach rural users outside the range of CenturyLink’s copper telephone lines and cable television service.

In other communities, local government is building a fiber optic backbone then leasing the resource to Internet service providers to connect the so called “last mile” to rural homes and businesses, but CenturyLink believes its Digital Subscriber ​Line offerings already reach most of Albemarle County residents.

“CenturyLink currently provides broadband to approximately 95 percent of Albemarle County,” said Simone Alley, CenturyLink’s market development manager in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We continually evaluate all opportunities for providing services to rural customers.”

At the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, Sandie Terry said a survey of almost 1,800 Albemarle residents conducted in April and May found a lot more connectivity than what is typically found in other rural counties.

Ninety-four percent of county residents report having Internet access at their home.  In that group, 86 percent reported having DSL, Cable or wireless access to the Internet.

“There is a lot of DSL in the county and not so much cable,” said Terry on one important finding.  “In the county, 39 percent of those with a connection said they are using DSL, that gives me a little concern for the long term future.”

“Today, DSL has constraints on capacity and speed, but that’s not to say technology won’t come along and give more capacity on that infrastructure,” Terry said.  “As we move toward that Internet-of-all-things-connected in our homes, we can’t predict how much bandwidth we will need 3-5 years from now.”

THE SCHOOL NETWORK

Vince Scheivert, the chief information officer for Albemarle County Public Schools, is not waiting for direction from the task force, he’s building a next generation network of his own.

A private fiber network being installed by the local school division may be another vehicle for the community’s broadband needs.

“Our goal is by the end of next year to have almost two-thirds of our school division fully interconnected,” said Scheivert.

Over the past two years, Scheivert has used private fiber to build campus networks around two of the division’s high schools and Sutherland Middle School, all of which are near other school facilities.  By reducing the number of independent sites, Albemarle has to lease fewer wide area network connections from CenturyLink.

“Now we have three campuses, down from nine individual school sites, and that reduces operating expenses,” Scheivert said.

According to Scheivert, $460,000 has been spent on the network thus far and this year’s capital improvement program includes an additional $900,000.

“This year we have started to interconnect our campuses…starting at Albemarle and heading up U.S. Route 29,” said Scheivert.  “We ran [fiber optic cable] up Hydraulic Road and Berkmar Road and we are basically at the [South Fork Rivanna] River, and we have built down from Sutherland Middle School to the River.”

As Charlottesville Tomorrow reported in the first article in this series, the school division’s next long fiber run will be from its central data center out to Crozet and Western Albemarle High School.  

“While initially there’s a little more labor involved [installing our own fiber], when you are done you are really done,” Scheivert said.  “Your operating costs go from whatever they are to nothing basically. … The end goal is really to provide a sustainable solution that we have the capability of expanding and meeting the needs of the division without having to continually burden the division with additional costs.”

A SHARED RESOURCE?

The team at Blue Ridge Internetworks has watched the school division’s project with some sense of trepidation, in part because of a “dig-once” philosophy for burying fiber optic cables – private companies already have fiber available for lease, so why dig again – and because of concerns about ownership.

“If you have the money it makes sense to own things and cut your operating expenses,” said BRI’s Fooks.  “I also think it makes much more sense for the county to be the entity owning the network and allowing the schools to use it.  Allowing the schools to own it greatly limits what can be done on the network, the relationship is really upside down.”

Fooks doesn’t think the schools will be able to lease unused capacity on the new network to the private sector.  The school division says a new service authority could handle that.

“What we know from the county attorney is that Albemarle would have to create [broadband] public service authority,” Scheivert said.  “Based upon any excess capacity we thought we had, we could transfer ownership to the authority.  It’s possible, but not directly possible, because government can’t compete with private companies.”

Whether to create a broadband authority, like Nelson County, is a key question that will be in front of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors.  

In doing so, Nelson was able to secure a $1.8 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.  

According to the project’s website, Nelson County has built a 31 mile fiber optic backbone connecting Afton, Avon, Lovingston and Colleen that works in conjunction with four wireless towers.  In the process, Nelson County has directly connected five local government facilities and three schools to the network.

Albemarle’s Michael Culp is hoping he can make use of the school division’s fiber network to better connect county facilities to each other, and the Internet, primarily to save money.  Like Scheivert, he wants to cut the cord with CenturyLink.

“I don’t see any advantage in having the private sector do it, because then they will have the same locks on us [financially] as they do today,” said Culp.

However, he says he’ll take a wait and see approach on sharing the new fiber with private sector providers.

“If we are successful in rolling out the private network and we see positive results, then we can start looking at capability, capacity and justification to offer it up in a fair competition,” Culp said.

Fooks says that approach may undermine Albemarle’s ability to compete for state and federal broadband grants, because the school needs can’t be used for leverage if they are already well-networked.  

“I almost understand what [Scheivert] is doing, because local government wouldn’t do this, and he has gotten control of a part of the budget,” Fooks said.  “But it really should be done by local government to allow for the greatest flexibility and more creative uses of the asset.”

“If the county can control a portion of the network after it’s built, then this will end up a much rosier situation,” Fooks said.

The Albemarle Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a work session on broadband issues September 3.

Read PART I: Albemarle Schools pursue a network for the future

 

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