Isle of Wight in the slow lane

Published 1:48 pm Wednesday, December 2, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Landowners and developers say the lack of high speed broadband in Isle of Wight County is a stumbling block to bringing business to the county. Newport District Supervisor-elect William McCarty said the lack of high speed internet was one of the major concerns as he campaigned for office earlier this year.

Richard Turner, who along with his partner Henry Morgan, own the property that is to become the mixed use Benn’s Grant, said the county not only struggles with overcoming a reputation of being unfriendly to business, but it lacks the communication infrastructure sought by those same folks.

Benn’s Grant is approved for 533,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a 100-room hotel. In addition to Benn’s Grant, the Newport Development Service District has about 630,000 more square feet of retail, commercial and medical office space approved and waiting to be developed.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Trip Ferguson, senior vice president with Harvey Lindsay Commercial Real Estate, said he finds it difficult to recruit business to Isle of Wight because it lacks high quality Internet.


Ferguson represents Fortune 500 companies and the first thing they ask about is Internet capacity, he said.

Branch Lawson of East West Communities said Eagle Harbor has Charter Communications, and so will Benn’s Grant, but would like to see higher speed capacity made available.

It’s been an issue with some homebuyers, he said, adding that the older sections of Eagle Harbor have Fios with Verizon, but the company has since discontinued laying cable in newer areas.

Fios is high-speed fiber optics with up to 500 megabits per second, according to the company’s website.  

In Smithfield, residential Charter Communications customers can obtain internet service beginning at 60 megabits per second, according to Charter.

Jim and Connie Henderson, a Carrollton couple who have spearheaded an effort to bring high speed Internet to the county, contrast that level of service with what they have available at their home located off Reynolds Drive.

Henderson said he is able to get a half to two megabits per second on his personal hotspot. That speed makes it impossible to stream movies or even receive power point presentations from county officials, much less watch Board of Supervisors meeting videos.

“How relevant is that?” he asked.

What makes Henderson particularly frustrated is that courthouse staff has 50 megabits per second service available and “the folks there are so unaware of how desperate it is outside their building,” he said.

Isle of Wight residents who live outside major developments, or the towns of Smithfield and Windsor, have few options and many still use dial-up or satellite service. 

The courthouse has high speed Internet via fiber from Charter, as do the county schools, said school and county officials.

The Carrollton Library also has high speed Internet, and Blackwater Regional Library Director Jenny Bailey said the library probably tied onto the cable that runs to Carrollton Elementary School, which is located nearby.

“There’s no way we could afford that,” Bailey said of running separate cable to the library.

The Hendersons worked with the Commonwealth of Virginia Office of Technology to survey residents about the Internet speed they receive, but were discouraged by the lack of response. In all, they received about 103 responses, or about 1 percent of households in the county.

Isle of Wight is currently under a 10-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications that was signed in 2012. The company provides telephone, cable television and Internet service.

When the contract was being negotiated, the Board of Supervisors at the time tried without success to get Charter to provide high speed Internet to the more rural areas of the county.

But the company said there wasn’t enough population density in those areas to make it feasible.

At the same time, the Charter contract is about cable television, which means small internet providers can come in and provide high speed internet if desired, said Isle of Wight County spokesman Don Robertson.

Mid-Atlantic Broadband Corporation is in the process of installing high capacity fiber optic cable through Surry and Isle of Wight counties, with potential speeds of up to 100 gigabytes per second. However, for Isle of Wight customers to access that capacity, Mid-Atlantic would need to partner with providers to bring the cable from the trunk line to the site, said Jeremy Satterfield business development manager with Mid-Atlantic.

Currently, Mid-Atlantic has about 40 smaller Internet service providers, as well as some major players that could fill that role, Satterfield said.

Henderson said the lack of high speed Internet might turn away Millennials looking to move to Isle of Wight County.

Without ready access to many sites, such as Youtube and movie streaming, they might decide to live elsewhere, he said.

It’s a handicap,” he said.

Robertson said it is a problem for rural communities and provides a challenge for economic development.

McCarty, who pushed for more transparency via the Internet during his campaign, wants to make broadband access a priority when he takes his seat in January.

Transparency is a problem if residents cannot access information provided online by their local government, he said.

Henderson said an effort such as the rural electrification in the early part of the last century might be a parallel solution that is required to break the monopoly of national cable and wireless suppliers who cherry-pick Internet access based on population density.

Meanwhile, Surry County is in the process of soliciting bids from service providers for future use of the county’s broadband tower being constructed at the Surry Industrial Park.

A combination of wireless and existing fiber optic broadband could potentially serve most of Surry’s population, said Surry Director of Planning and Community Development Rhonda Russell. {/mprestriction}