When Darla Cloud first moved to Pittsylvania County 13 years ago, she had two different online teaching jobs. Slow, unreliable internet at her home in the farmland between Blairs and Chatham made the jobs extremely difficult to keep.
“Within a year both of them had stopped giving me any more class assignments,” the 55-year-old teacher said.
In the time since then, she has tried at least eight internet providers, and none of them have provided service with the necessary speed or reliability to teach from home. With medical conditions and a 21-year-old special needs daughter living with her, Cloud needs the flexibility that comes with working from home. She currently works as a substitute teacher at Danville Public Schools and has taught in other school districts and universities.
As part of the county- wide strategic plan adopted by the board of supervisors in July, Pittsylvania County leadership aims for 90% of county residents to have broadband internet access by 2024. To get resident input for a specific broadband strategic plan, the county is partnering with the Herndon-based nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology in conducting a survey that will run through Dec. 31.
The survey asks for zip code, current internet subscription, online activities the resident would like to do but can’t and how much money the household would be willing to spend monthly for faster internet service.
Chuck Kirby, vice president of broadband programs for CIT, said the group works with Virginia localities through what they call a Broadband Path program, which involves three steps. First, the locality conducts a needs assessment to understand where the needs are and what types of needs there are, such as education, business and personal.
“These [needs] bleed into each other,” Kirby said.
Next, after the results of the assessment have been analyzed, the locality must decide what its role will be moving forward. Lastly, the locality creates a comprehensive, 10-year plan with the goal of developing strong public-private partnerships that result in strong, widespread broadband 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, cable or satellite.
“If I had to describe broadband in one word, it would be opportunity,” Kirby said. “Broadband is the glue that holds a community together.”
With much of Pittsylvania County being rural, right now many residents do not have access to broadband internet access, and like Cloud, many of those who do must deal with high prices and shaky service compared with those in more urban environments. 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.
“The very thing [nature, peace and quiet] that attracts people to these communities are things that do make it more difficult to lay infrastructure,” Kirby said.
During the past year, Arrington-based SCS Broadband has partnered with the county to provide broadband through fixed wireless internet, which works like radio signals, on existing 911 towers. They have installed equipment on five towers throughout the county: White Oak, Mount Airy, Grit, Callands and Kentuck.
More smaller internet towers — or community poles — are being planned to fit the gaps between the larger towers and provide stronger signal for the fixed wireless.
“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,” said Matt Rowe, economic development director for Pittsylvania County.
But, out of concern for precedent and financial viability, the Pittsylvania County Industrial Development Authority voted down an internet tower in the Laurel Grove community in August.
For rural communities like Pittsylvania County, Kirby said hybrid solutions involving both fixed wireless and regular wireless service are the most likely way to increase access.
Pittsylvania County Director of Information Technology Scott Bud, who is working closely with CIT on the survey, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Cloud is in the midst of applying for a job teaching English through video-conferencing with Chinese students, and an internet speed test is the lone step that remains before she can sign the contract. Even with a recently-purchased business account, which is supposed to have faster access and runs $180 per month, Cloud questions if her internet will be fast and reliable enough.
“If that one doesn’t work out, then I’m out of options,” she said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.