Ben Farmer, who has served as the Callands-Gretna District supervisor for the past year and a half, has received complaints from residents and businesses throughout his district about the lack of broadband internet access.
But the number of complaints has declined significantly during his tenure.
“I field a lot less phone calls,” he said.
That decrease is the result of the increase in broadband access, particularly in the county’s more rural areas, throughout the county.
Working closely with the county, Arrington-based SCS Broadband has increased broadband availability by installing their own fixed wireless internet, which works like radio signals, on existing E911 towers. They installed equipment on four operational towers in Pittsylvania County: the White Oak, Mount Airy, Grit and Callands. A fifth tower, in Kentuck, is being serviced with the required equipment and will be operational soon, and two more E911 towers are projected to provide internet service within the year.
This is all part of the county’s strategic plan, adopted in July, to provide broadband internet access for 90% of county residents by 2024.
With its expansive landmasses and slew of rural, scarcely populated areas, much of Pittsylvania County has gone without consistent broadband internet access. Broadband is high-speed internet that isn’t run through a dial-up system and often is provided through fiber optic cables, digital subscriber line (DSL), cable or satellite.
SCS Broadband is projecting internet access from their central tower, which is connected to fiber optic cable, by sending the signal to other towers throughout the county.
Partnering with the county’s already-existing infrastructure is what allows SCS to provide their services in rural areas, said Clay Stewart, company president.
“The whole plan that we came up with four years ago was to partner with counties, to use as much infrastructure as they can provide,” he said.
Pittsylvania County Economic Director Matt Rowe said this use of the E911 towers, which often are at least 200 feet tall, makes sense.
“That’s not a very efficient use of a tower if it’s just holding one piece of equipment,” Rowe said.
Before the implementation of these internet towers, county broadband availability almost exclusively followed the 29 corridor from north to south and, in the southern part of the county, the 58 corridor from east to west.
A 2018 study from Appalachian Power shows the same: the majority of the northeastern and northwestern residents in rural communities don’t have residential broadband access and are underserved, while the southern end of the county has much better access overall. The Callands-Gretna district on the west, the Banister district on the east, and the Staunton River district to the north are three most underserved areas.
The seven towers will create a diamond-shaped grid, forming the foundation of the broadband project. Smaller water towers and other tall structures will fill in the gaps, but it will still be difficult to provide everyone with access. Other primary towers scheduled for completion this year are located in Zion and Brosville.
Weather permitting, all of the towers will be fully operational by mid-2020.
“The more towers we bring online, the more redundancy there is. … The more towers, the more total objects, the more repeaters and transponders we’re able to put in the county, the stronger the network becomes,” Rowe said.
Once the 911 and water towers are complete, the company will work with the county to implement community poles: smaller poles for shadow areas, where the main towers can’t reach.
Internet access in rural areas has lagged when compared to access in urban, more populated areas. This is generally referred to as the digital divide. The large telecommunications companies seek out the greatest profit and they can’t achieve that by laying wire for several miles just to reach a few hundred houses.
Even when companies do provide access in rural areas, Rowe said, the cost for consumers are significantly higher.
“Other wireless networks kill rural America with data caps,” he said.
Assistant County Administrator Greg Sides, who lives near Dry Fork, had satellite internet service at his house, but he constantly found himself fighting with the monthly data limits.
“Once you reached your limit, that was it,” he said.
Since switching to SCS Broadband, he has been able to become more connected without hitting data limits, and even begin experimenting with video streaming services.
“It’s much better to be fully connected with the outside world,” he said.
The lay of the land is another difficulty when developing a broadband internet network in rural areas. In Pittsylvania County, the number of large pine trees can cause problems and limit the distance a signal can travel.
“Pine needles are the worst thing ever for wireless signal,” Rowe said.
While the county does have loads of pine trees and expansive flatland, it also has a central high spot for its towers.
“The county was very, very lucky in it’s topography to have a mountain near the center. … from there we can service many towers around the county,” Stewart said.
SCS Broadband is trying to improve broadband availability in 11 counties in rural Virginia. Stewart, who founded the company 14 years ago, said the reason they can operate in and focus on rural Virginia is they aren’t a profit-driven company.
“The whole company is about the digital divide,” Stewart said.
In Pittsylvania County, SCS Broadband pays the county $80 a month per 911 tower that they use. This project is being completed without taxpayer dollars. The Virginia Tobacco Commission and SCS Broadband are splitting the costs of equipment and installations.
In a meeting Tuesday, the Industrial Development Authority will consider building a tower in the Laurel Grove area, primarily to service the fire department in that area, Rowe said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.