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The Roanoke Valley is falling behind its neighbors in access to high-quality Internet service, but a regional authority can help it catch up.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
The Roanoke Valley doesn’t want its theme song to be the screech and static of a dial-up computer connection.
Most residents have moved beyond that antiquated technology, but even so we’re fast becoming a community reliant on obsolete infrastructure. We just don’t have that annoying racket to warn us that we’re falling behind.
A group of business and government leaders deserve credit for galvanizing the region into action before it’s too late.
As Roanoke businessman William Fralin explains it, the Roanoke Valley is becoming a doughnut hole at the center of a broadband frenzy. The region isn’t rural enough to qualify for federal assistance in developing Internet improvements, but it’s not a large enough urban market to convince private companies to invest in state-of-the-art technology.
Yet consumers and businesses here are demanding more accessible, affordable, high-quality Internet service. Just as important, the region needs those improvements in order to attract companies that won’t consider locating in a community lacking in broadband capacity.
A task force formed last year to study the problem, and it made its initial recommendations last week. It advocated for creation of a regional broadband authority with support from local governments, Virginia Tech and the Western Virginia Water Authority. At least a half dozen such authorities already exist, including ones in the New River Valley and Rockbridge County, two communities well ahead of the Roanoke Valley in high-speed broadband.
There are still many unanswered questions about how to proceed in terms of financing, operations and the role of existing Internet service providers. The authority would have the ability to start making those decisions and developing a master plan for construction and development of open-access fiber, with public input and advice from experts.
Early diplomacy by broadband advocates has helped to avoid resistance to the project in its formative stages.
Roanoke, Salem and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt supported the study, and an enthusiastic group of local leaders were present for the press conference releasing its recommendations. Tech officials have signaled their willingness to be helpful, as has Carilion Clinic.
The press conference was hosted by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, which clearly has a keen interest in broadband advances. And business leaders have reached out to private providers to discuss removal of regulatory and permitting barriers that impede improvements to their existing networks.
These early partners must communicate and engage other potential “anchor tenants” for new broadband infrastructure. Intensive users of Internet service such as school systems and large companies need to understand the potential benefits available to them as they make plans for future technology contracts and investments. A regional broadband network may still be in the planning stages, but the time to start positioning the community to take advantage of it begins right now.
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