Broadband is elusive

Published 7:29 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Surry not only county hunting solutions

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

SURRY — A year ago, Surry County residents seemed poised to begin receiving wireless internet service from SCS Broadband.

So far, that hasn’t happened and county officials are looking to expand their options. One of those may well be fiber optic connections. At least two electric cooperatives in Virginia have stepped up to provide fiber-based internet similar to the way they electrified rural communities in the early 20th century. 

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The Surry County Board of Supervisors has set aside $500,000 in the proposed fiscal 2019 budget to work with Prince George Electric Cooperative, which has recently completed a pilot program running fiber to homes already hooked onto its electric grid. 

The target is to provide high speed internet via fiber to 200 homes by leveraging the $500,000, said Surry County Administrator Tyrone Franklin. 

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative is working on a similar project for its member communities. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Surry County is still working with SCS Broadband, but owner Clay Stewart said a recent failed merger with 380 Communications has set his company back.

380 Communications, run by Surry resident Patrick MacIntosh, has provided wireless internet for its customers in the town of Surry for more than 10 years. 

MacIntosh said the ultimate goal is to provide high speed internet access to residents, but interference between providers would degrade the quality to all customers. MacIntosh was referring to interference inherent in wireless transmission, be it WiFi or LTE. 

As for the delay, Stewart said negotiations with 380 Communications slowed his attempts to get a lease on a second tower located west of the town of Surry along Route 10.

However, that lease has cleared and Steward anticipates that residents in the town of Surry can access service from SCS this month. 

So far, about 120 Surry residents have expressed interest in service, said Stewart. 

That tower is one of 10 that SCS Broadband is working to obtain leases on in order to expand service in Surry County, according to its website. 

Surry County owns a tower located in its industrial park, and at one time, it was thought it could provide wireless internet to the entire county. Instead, wireless internet, in Surry and many other areas, is plagued with problems stemming from trees, flat terrain, weather and other interference — hence the need to put equipment on more towers to increase the signal. 

SCS Broadband’s system includes the county’s tower. 

Meanwhile, fiber does not have the same problems with interference that wireless does, and Prince George Electric Cooperative is working off the fiber that was installed along Interstate 95 by Mid-Atlantic Broadband several years ago, said Renee Chapline, vice president of communications and government with Prince George Electric Cooperative. 

So far, 150 households in Sussex County are connected and another 120 have submitted applications, said Chapline of the $20-$25 million project that will ultimately serve 500 homes. Prince George County has also contributed $1 million to the project. 

Chapline compares the co-op’s efforts to those it made in the early 20th century when locally run co-ops electrified rural America. 

Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle said the fiber project with Prince George provides another option for residents. 

Lyttle is becoming concerned about SCS’s ability to deliver, as a technician came to her house and said he was unable to obtain a signal from the county’s central tower located in its industrial park. 

“I think we’re in trouble with SCS,” she said. 

In some people’s minds, it’s not happening fast enough, said Lyttle.

Stewart said it’s about managing expectations, adding that obtaining leases to put equipment on towers is an expensive and lengthy process. 

Stewart said his company plans to recoup the investment in leases, frequency and equipment through subscriptions. 

Plans for basic service start at $40 for up to 10 Mbps, according to the county’s performance agreement with SCS, but Stewart said most people would prefer the family plan, as it provides more speed for up to 40 Mbps. The cost for that is $100 a month for unlimited data, including $198 for installation, according to the agreement. There is also a caveat in the agreement that the plans are for service “where available.” 

Stewart said he’s recently updated the company’s website so that Surry residents can get a better idea of where SCS is at in the county. 

“Communication is key,” said Stewart.

Regional approach

SCS Broadband’s contract with Surry County is part of a regional effort by the company to overcome what is called the “digital divide” that separates urban and rural areas of Virginia, as well as the rest of the country. 

SCS Broadband’s website lists 19 counties that it is working with — or is trying to work with — including Charles City, New Kent, Powhatan and Halifax counties. 

Stewart said his company is in the midst of a five-year plan to bring wireless internet to central Virginia — and SCS is the only wireless internet service provider attempting a regional approach.

Indeed, SCS was the only company that responded to Surry’s request for a wireless provider, said Lyttle. 

Charles City County signed on with SCS three years ago and so far, has not been able to hook up more than a tiny handful of customers, if that, according to Charles City County Supervisor Bill Coada. 

Another company responded to Charles City’s request for proposals, but ended up saying a wireless system wouldn’t work, Coada said. 

Coada said SCS and another consultant designed the tower system, but did not take into consideration that the county’s landfill was an obstacle to transmission. 

Coada said that after three years of frustration, the county is looking at other options. 

He doesn’t put 100 percent of the blame on SCS, but does fault the company for its lack of communication and performance. 

Stewart knows there’s a service delivery problem in Charles City, but said his company is still there. 

No one single media will do it for a county, instead it’s a combination of wireless, fiber and satellite, he said. 

“It’s all about height over houses,” said Stewart.

Recently, there was a regional meeting of counties that are working with SCS about the company’s performance, including New Kent and Charles City counties, according to the New Kent-Charles City Chronicle.  

Powhatan Today reported in February that the Powhatan Board of Supervisors were also concerned with the progress of SCS Broadband. 

County administrators from New Kent, Powhatan and Louisa counties did not respond to a request for comments.

Stewart knows his company is small. Some county officials have described it as a “mom and pop” style business and that it is a concern.

However, since ramping up the five-year plan, Stewart said his company has tripled the number of employees and trucks it has, and has operational managers who each cover three to four counties. 

MacIntosh was to be one of those multi-county operational managers until the deal to merge with SCS fell through, according to a press release issued by 380 Communications. 

Stewart remains confident about his company’s ability to deliver.

“This is not my first time in the bathtub,” he said, adding that he has had experience building large companies in the past and has provided wireless internet in Nelson County for years. 

Meanwhile, Halifax County recently received a $206,202 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. The grant includes a $866,823 match from the Halifax County Broadband Initiative and the plan is to work with SCS to build a wireless system for its residents. The tower system also connects to neighboring Pittsylvania County, which is also working with SCS Broadband. 

Halifax signed on with SCS about a year and half ago, but has been waiting for the Tobacco grant to go through before spending any money, said Halifax County Administrator James Halasz. 

So far, no one is online with SCS yet, but it’s going well, Halasz said. 

And while Fluvanna County is listed on SCS Broadband’s website as one of its county partners, Fluvanna County Community and Economic Development Director Jason Smith said the county hasn’t signed an agreement with SCS. 

Instead, the county is looking to work with the Central Virginia Electrical Cooperative, which is in the midst of a fiber project similar to Prince George, using existing infrastructure and easements. 

The $110 million project, involving all of the co-op’s member counties, aims to provide fiber-based broadband internet to its customers within five years, said Smith. 

Currently, some areas of the county are connected and have some options, while others lack any type of service, said Smith. 

Smith said that another advantage of the co-op is that it’s a known entity. 

Smith calls the co-op’s plan “a gamechanger, a very aggressive model.” 

Chapline also touts Prince George Electric Cooperative’s long history — more than 70 years — of service in Surry County as a selling point. Under the project’s fiber model, customers would pay for internet along with their electric bill, and there’s no cap on data, she said. 

And while wireless internet is cheaper, it’s also subject to the vagaries of weather and other interference. Fiber, while more costly, doesn’t have those constraints, Chapline said. 

Chapline points out that rural counties would benefit from using fiber in other ways — both in education and telemedicine. 

Telemedicine, which addresses the lack of medical professionals in rural counties, needs the speed and reliability of fiber internet, said Chapline. 

“I don’t know why other localities don’t do this,” she said. 

Charles City County Administrator Michelle Johnson, who shares Coada’s frustration with the lack of internet service in the county, thinks this issue should move to the state level.

 “If all the rural counties would rally together and get loud and proud and go to the General Assembly and say we’re suffering,” she said. 

“We need to start a movement for rural America.”   {/mprestriction}