Parts of IW still lack access

Published 3:02 pm Wednesday, February 26, 2020

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

With grant money flowing toward Surry County for the implementation of high-speed fiber internet, some Isle of Wight residents are feeling left out. 

Left without reliable internet, that is. 

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Surry County was awarded a $2.2 million grant from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, known as a VATI grant, a few weeks ago. After hearing about the development, Carrollton resident Judy Morin and some of her neighbors on Waterfront and Doggett lanes still lack a fiber broadband connection to their home. 

Like others in the area without access to high-speed internet distributed through fiber optic cable — the definition of broadband —  Morin said that she’s left to rely on spotty, wireless internet provided through her cellular company, Verizon. Verizon provides internet through a device called a “MiFi,” a router that acts as a mobile, wireless hotspot. 

“We cannot use Netflix, stream movies, or have an Alexa, Google Home, etc.,” Morin said in an email, adding, “We would really like to catch up with the 21st century.” Since Carrollton is an area of economic development, broadband access shouldn’t be an issue, she said. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Doggett Lane resident Jim Henderson, who installed a satellite through Exede Viasat internet said that service is marginal at best, and doesn’t allow him to stream movies without buffering.

Henderson, who works in business consulting, said the available internet connection is enough to email and look up online inquiries, but isn’t much more powerful than that. Bad weather also affects his connection, making fiber broadband optimal, he said.  

Since county staff doesn’t have a direct role in providing broadband access to residents, the lack in internet access largely comes down to business decisions made by private internet service providers in the county, according to Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson. 

Following discussions with internet service providers, Robertson said that, according to the providers, the county either didn’t fit their business model or that they had determined that costs to serve a rural community were too high compared to other potential areas.   

County staff doesn’t have the authority to act as a direct telecommunications service provider and has limited authority over private sector, telecommunication companies such as Charter Spectrum and Verizon, according to Robertson. 

That being said, county staff is currently in discussions with Charter Spectrum about potential areas of broadband internet expansion in Isle of Wight, and that the county may possibly provide county and/or future grant money to do so, said Robertson.

Spectrum did provide Morin a quote for $140 per month per household for roughly 15-20 households in the Clearwater and Doggett Lane areas, but the agreement held the Homeowner’s Association officers of the neighborhood liable for the payments, according to Morin. 

Since Morin is one of the HOA officers, she said that she wasn’t okay with that arrangement. 

Robertson said that eligibility for the VATI grant, specifically, requires that the county have a private partner for the provision of broadband. 

Last year, county staff spent some time developing a working relationship with Community Electric Cooperative in Windsor with the hope that they’d be able to partner on the provision of broadband in some unserved portions of the county, but the cooperative eventually made the choice not to venture into broadband. 

Surry County partnered with Prince George Electric Cooperative for the VATI grant, and $2.2 million in county funds were offered in the grant application as a match to make Surry County more competitive, according to Interim Surry County Administrator Melissa Rollins. 

Prince George Electric Cooperative also received a federal grant last year that would address some parts of Isle of Wight, among other localities, but this grant doesn’t apply to the area where Morin lives, said Robertson.

Having worked with PGEC on the federal grant, Robertson said that county staff are optimistic that they will be able to partner with the PGEC to provide broadband to other parts of Isle of Wight. However, the two parties weren’t far enough in their discussions last year to pursue grant funding through the VATI grant by the September 2019 application deadline. 

“We are confident that we should be able to develop a very strong application to pursue future rounds of VATI funding,” said Robertson.  

“Our hope is that every household in the county will be offered high quality service at a reasonable cost, but the county does not have the authority to require Spectrum/Charter to serve a specific neighborhood or individual household,” said Robertson. {/mprestriction}