Pittsylvania County residents are largely dissatisfied with their current internet service and more than 9 out of every 10 residents would commit to a new contract if a faster, more reliable option came along, a survey found.
County leadership established in February their goal would be to “facilitate” private sector development, as opposed to stepping in themselves. This survey, which was administered by the Herndon-based nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology starting in November, was meant to gauge the community’s needs and current situation. The next step will be meeting with internet providers to expand partnerships and coverage, said Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman.
“Ultimately what we envision is a sit-down with all of our providers, asking who’s doing what and how can we facilitate what you’re doing,” Smitherman said during a meeting Tuesday night.
The survey aimed to gauge the overall situation in Pittsylvania County. There were 1,514 total responses, which is 6% of the 26,687 occupied households in the county. During a presentation at Tuesday night’s meeting, Jean Plymale, broadband project manager for Center for Innovative Technology, said there is a 95% chance that the results are representative of the county.
Broadband is high-speed internet that isn’t run through a dial-up system and often is provided through fiber optic cables, digital subscriber lines, cable or satellite. As defined by the Federal Communication Commission, broadband means download speeds of 25 megabytes per second and upload speeds of 3 megabytes per second.
Right now, 40% of Pittsylvania County E911 address points — which includes any address registered with first responders — don’t have access to any broadband services, with most of those being in the northern areas of the county away from the U.S. 29 corridor.
In their strategic plan, adopted in July of 2019, county officials said they want to provide broadband internet access for 90% of county residents by 2024.
According to the most recent FCC data, there are 14 internet providers in Pittsylvania County.
“You do have quite a number of service providers that claim to serve Pittsylvania County,” Plymale said. “It’s probably very overstated, but still, it’s quite a lot of providers.”
But for those that do have some access, it isn’t all equal or reliable. According to the survey, 62% of residents “depend on inadequate, expensive, unreliable, and/or obsolete services,” which include digital subscriber line (DSL), satellite, cellular data and even dial-up.
The bottom line is that even with providers spaced throughout the county, many residents do not have any access to broadband internet, and most of the services that are available tend to be unreliable or have sky-high prices. This generally is 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.
Cable, which is usually the best option aside from fiber optic cables straight to the home, was one of the most frequent types that didn’t meet customers needs, according to the survey. Cable companies Comcast and Chatmoss — two companies that work northeast of Danville and south of Blairs — had service that was too slow, residents said in the survey.
“We rarely see areas that have cable services report that they’re not happy with the services,” Plymale said.
Access to broadband internet can have a variety of positive effects, including raising household income, allowing more flexible work arrangements, improving health care access and increasing home values, according to Plymale’s presentation.
One company that is working to provide broadband internet access in the county is Arrington-based SCS Broadband. The company has partnered with the county to provide broadband through fixed wireless internet, which works like radio signals, on existing 911 towers.
For rural communities like Pittsylvania County, Chuck Kirby, vice president of broadband programs for CIT, told the Register & Bee hybrid solutions involving both fixed wireless and regular wireless service are the most likely way to increase access.
SCS Broadband has installed equipment on several towers throughout the community so far, but continued expansion has been halted due to delays in getting equipment from China, said Clay Stewart, president of the company, which works in several rural Virginia localities.
“It’s a combination of the factory closings and that companies that we deal with are moving out of China because of the tariffs,” Stewart said.
Plans to add two additional towers have been delayed. Right now, SCS Broadband has five main towers in White Oak, Mount Airy, Grit, Callands and Kentuck, along with several smaller internet towers filling in some gaps. A few new community towers were delayed as well.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.