HANOVER -- Access to broadband internet is an issue plaguing rural communities across the nation.
In Hanover County, there are areas where broadband is not available, and even in areas that are served service is sometimes less than dependable.
Kevin Nelson, director of Information Technology for the county, provided the Hanover County Board of Supervisors with an update on current efforts to improve broadband access in areas not being served.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to the problem, and current programs designed to help rural communities in obtaining access are seriously underfunded.
Estimates to provide broadband service on a national level exeed $75 billion. The Federal program designed to provide relief is funded at $600 million for 2019.
Two applications for assistance in Virginia were accepted, but no funding was provided for the allotments.
Nelson said the county has pursued available options since the formation of a High Speed Internet Committee in 2012.
“They came up with some recommendations,” Nelson said. Included in those suggestions was establishing a point man for the project, and Deputy County Administration Frank Harksen was named.
The committee also suggested the creation of special tax districts to attract service, and recognized the importance of accurate mapping of where service upgrades are needed.
As a result of the committee’s work, all libraries in Hanover now have high speed internet access.
The work of that committee is now under the guidance of a broadband task force to continue efforts to provide broadband throughout the county.
“Every locality that has a rural area is going through the same thing,” Nelson said. “They are asking the exact same questions and trying to figure it out.”
Nelson said the county has invited service providers to co-locate on county towers, and the county has endorsed contracts with two private ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to alleviate the problem.
“We want to continue to encourage people to co-locate on our towers,” Nelson said. “We are happy to have those partners co-located on the towers.”
One of those ISP companies is no longer in business, and the other is falling far short of expectations.
On the grant side of the equation, the Commonwealth now offers a program called the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative that does offer funding to provide service to rural areas.
Federal funding also is available through the Federal Reconnect Program, and Nelson said staff is attending meetings to better acquaint themselves with these grants and how to apply for them.
Nelson said the county has contacted a number of ISPs to gauge their interest in partnering with the county to apply for these grants.
Localities must partner with ISPs to meet eligibility requirements for the grant programs, but those providers can apply for the Reconnect Program individually without a locality serving as a partner.
“All of these grants are to get broadband services to areas that are classified as unserved,” Nelson said.
Areas identified as unserved in Hanover include Rockville, Montpelier, Doswell, Blackcreek, River Road and parts of Old Church.
“As it stands right now, those are the areas that might qualify for the grants, areas that are classified as unserved,” Nelson said.
For the second time in as many months, a citizen addressed the board during citizens’ time requesting the formation of a broadband committee.
Board chair Canova Peterson, Mechanicsville District, said the board is considering options regarding the path forward on broadband solutions.
Nelson said efforts will continue to seek solutions and inform the citizens on the progress.
“So, we’re looking at continuing our work efforts and continue to communicate and utilize our website to update and educate people on what exactly is the status of broadband,” he said.
He also said the county would continue to seek ISPs to partner on grant opportunities, but,at present, “the county doesn’t have anything that is concrete.”
Henry District Sean Davis said he understands the frustration regarding internet service to problem areas.
“One of the things that is difficult when I speak with constituents and present the obstacles or facts and there doesn’t appear to be a solution, the frustration level rises,” Davis said.
Davis noted the amount allotted for grant programs to assist in broadband acquisition are grossly underfunded compared to the massive needs.
“The money is just not there,” he said.
Davis indicated he would endorse the creation of another committee to study the problem and provide possible solutions.
Cold Harbor supervisor Scott Wyatt also said he also would support the creation of a broadband committee.
Davis noted the current criteria for grant approval is a density of six people per square mile, and said he has voiced a desire to change those guidelines.
Chickahominy District supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek said the problem is not exclusive to rural areas of the county but also affects residences in the Suburban Service Area.
“I have horror stories from the Ashcreek and Milestone area where the type of infrastructure that they have and the way it is maintained is truly horrifying,” she said.
County administrator Rhu Harris explained the county’s position on solving current service issues.
“This is a transaction between a private residence and a third party business,” Harris said.
When complaints are received, he said county staff attempts to serve as a conduit and connect residents with the provider that might provide answers.
“Hanover is not part of that transaction. Internet service is not regulated part of anything we do here in Hanover County,” Harris said. “We have no leverage. per se in that conversation.”