Despite the steady improvement of broadband internet access throughout Pittsylvania County over the past few years, it recently took a hit in the Laurel Grove area.

Access is being achieved with fixed wireless towers being implemented throughout the county. But on Tuesday, the Pittsylvania County Industrial Development Authority decided not to move forward with construction of a 160-foot tall internet tower in the Laurel Grove area.

One of the main customers in the area would have been the Laurel Grove Volunteer Fire Department, which is where Gov. Ralph Northam stood when he announced his goal of extending broadband internet access throughout rural Virginia in 2018.

To construct and implement the tower, the authority would have needed to pay $45,108. The Virginia Tobacco Commission would have footed another $55,108, and the Laurel Grove Volunteer Fire Department would have provided $10,000.

One of the conditions of the deal would have been that Arrington-based SCS Broadband provide free internet access for the fire department.

“The board of supervisors has really made this Laurel Grove fire department a key priority,” Pittsylvania County Director of Economic Development Matt Rowe said.

Through a lively discussion, many authority members expressed concern with the terms of the agreement and the county’s ability to make money from it.

SCS Broadband, the company that already has four operational fixed wireless towers and will complete a fifth soon, would lease the Laurel Grove internet pole for $250 monthly. The contract would run for five years and SCS would have the power to renew after that.

At that rate, it would take 15 years for the county to earn their money back through the lease.

Rowe said this was an exceptionally favorable deal for the county considering current rates — especially since the current industry standard for such contracts is only three years. But the authority still felt the deal wasn’t favorable enough to the county.

“The private part of the partnership would benefit more than the public,” said authority member Joey Faucette, who represents the Chatham-Blairs district.

Another concern was the precedent this would set for other communities within the county. Many other areas already have been asking for internet poles, which made authority members nervous about what would happen if they funded this one.

“There’s going to be a lot of people that want those internet towers,” said Greg Sides, assistant county administrator, who presented the information with Rowe.

Once the seven primary towers are completed, most of the county will have access to the internet, but they may have to incur significant costs to put up the community poles to actually get it, Rowe said. These community poles will be the key to covering up what he called shadow areas, or the areas where the main poles don’t reach.

No tax dollars from Pittsylvania County residents have been used to fund these projects; the costs have been split between grants from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and SCS Broadband.

The seven primary towers already are constructed E911 towers that SCS will install equipment on. The broadband signal will be sent from tower to tower, much the same way that radio signal is broadcasted.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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