Thanks to the determination, drive, innovation, and the forward thinking of its citizens Botetourt County (BoCo), VA is among the pacesetters of community broadband networks. Thanks also to the "leave no stone un-turned" philosophy of partnership development, the BoCo network will be a hotbed of innovation thanks to the diversity of partners.
BoCo is a county that was hating life online, but that’s about to change. Officially, only 70% ofresidents have Internet access, although some say there are a lot more disconnected citizens than that.
The numbers of unserved individuals and businesses here can seem daunting, and many are happy at even the prospect of being connected. But the BoCo leadership is offering a vision of a county bubbling over with ample bandwidth. Gigabit speed. 10 gig speed. With the foundation that’s being laid, the sky’s the limit!
Gary Larrowe, County Administrator for Botetourt County wants, “Local citizens to be able to have bandwidth that allows them to work remotely, run a home-based business while expanding their educational opportunities over the Net. I can see seniors staying in their homes longer because of telemedicine, and keeping up with the grandkid’s birthdays and graduations.”
Broadband infrastructure will impact economic development, which is often the driving reason many communities build these networks. “New business starts, net business entity growth,sales tax revenues and business license revenue are all objective criteria we use for tracking economic development success,” says Ken McFadyen, who is the Director of Economic Development for Botetourt County. “Subjectively, you know economic development success when you see it!”
Consider this brief report card on the first semester of BoCo’s broadband project. A lot went on in 2018, and individuals as well as businesses should be proud of the achievements.
This report highlights two stellar achievements in broadband deployment:
1) breaking with the process of “ready, shoot, aim” in broadband planning; and
2) participating in a new trend of coop/ government partnerships. But there is additional good news for the County as they begin their new semester.
Grassroots broadband activism
Walter Grigg, Executive Vice President at Lawrence Companies, moved to Botetourt County from neighboring Roanoke County, VA few years ago and was immediately incredulous and frustrated at the lack of broadband. It was virtually non-existent in many parts of the county.
Although he had no political experience or leanings towards activism, Grigg talked to anyone in the power structure who would listen. Soon the Broadband Advisory Commission was formed, which Supervisor Mac Scothorn heads up, and Grigg was named vice chairman.
“My wife was totally into it,” says Grigg. “She did a couple of Facebook posts and the response was phenomenal. She had a couple of thousand residents and business in some way.” Local news coverage added to the excitement and the people volunteering to help out to make broadband a reality.
The Commission coordinated an online survey to quantify the need for broadband and further publicize the grassroots efforts. “The survey validated the overwhelming need,” said Grigg. “It also revealed that throughout the county a sizable number of people didn’t know a lot about broadband and how it could help us.”
Larrowe found the survey results troubling given that the county is “near the largest Metro area in the western part of Virginia, yet we have so many homes that are without service. With the numbers being so high, it started accelerating the movement to find a solution.
It is at this point where BoCo broke with the modus operandi of typical broadband project teams.
Many communities, knowing generally that they need broadband, will go straight to hiring a consultant before fully understanding the particulars of broadband or how it can address their specific needs.
BoCo decided to hold a two full-day broadband summit in September 2018. Because of that summit, the county should have a better network that gives the community a greater return on their investment.
The BoCo Summit was a gathering of private and public organizations, policymakers, and other segments of the community broadband arena. Their mission was to educate and motivate the BoCo community. YouTube, and social media brought the summit to those who couldn’t attend the live session.
By holding the summit first, the Commission developed a better handle on the community’sneeds and could better engage consultants before selecting one. An amazing number of new opportunities presented themselves. They recruited Arleen Boyd to head the Summit. Besides her cat-herding skills, Boyd spent significant time working in the telecom industry before retiring.
“We had a lot of community people helping with recruiting speakers and managing logistics,” says Boyd. “The goal was to get as many people speaking on the program who had knowledge that could help us.
Larrowe added, “All kinds of solutions came come out of the discussions. We had a logical plan, consensus that led to our consultant decision (Sandie Terry), and connections galore.”
Community broadband industry luminary James Baller was the keynote speaker, and led a host of speakers and panelists, including representatives of state and federal agencies, industry associations, government officials of counties with broadband initiatives, and co-ops. ISPs and industry lobbyists were speakers as well, and several tech companies had tabletop displays.
Boyd adds, “It’s important that you include in the needs assessment phase information exchanges with knowledgeable people involved with various aspects of broadband deployment, especially raising money. It was amazing how many state and federal agencies can provide grants and programs to help us with this.”
Avoiding the “Cut & Paste” Trap
Organizing events such as the BoCo Summit opens up a community’s vision to a myriad of possibilities. Some consultants have tunnel vision. This is partly because they don’t live in the community they’re consulting for, they don’t know anyone there, and they have a primary way of doing things that fits their consulting philosophy.
“Communities are being advised to build ‘x’ number of towers, and lay ‘so many miles’ of fiber, or give a community’s anchor institutions to a broadband provider that will somehow magically generate residential customers,” says Sandie Terry, Principal at Rural Broadband Consulting, LLC in Virginia. “As a result, you see these cookie-cutter reports that end up on a shelves.”
Terry has worked many years for county jurisdictions, and then for a quasi-state agency, getting broadband to more Virginia residents and businesses. “Even with my experience, the Summit presented some new ideas, and ways of looking at broadband strategy I probably wouldn’t have thought of alone,” Terry says.
In the heyday of the municipal citywide Wi-Fi movement, the broadband stimulus program, and the heightened drive for fiber-to-thehome projects, there is a common thread. Local governments follow the “Cut & Paste” strategy of network deployments. Two or three jurisdictions come up with a formula for selecting consultants or designing network infrastructure, then there is a rash of similar Requests for Proposals (RFPs).
While there could be some similarities between jurisdictions, political environments, population densities, budgets, terrain, and other factors that impact broadband, deployments are unique for each jurisdiction. The BoCo Summit and various activities since then have made it certain that this jurisdiction will not fall victim to the “Cut & Paste” Trap.
The summit led to BoCo joining an exciting broadband trend. Until the last three or four years, electric co-ops were just dabbling in the broadband scene. There were about ten (10) electric co-ops building and marketing broadband services while the other co-ops waited to see which way the winds were going to blow. Only a couple of the 10 created a logical, though novel, partnership at the time.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) in Colorado is a co-op that serves 32,000 souls. Though members wanted the co-op to provide broadband service, DMEA’s management wanted the City of Montrose to commit to purchasing services for its workers and departments. This ensured a base revenue stream.
Niles, Michigan has fiber infrastructure but didn’t want to build and run a citywide broadband network. So they asked the nearby Midwest co-op to extend the co-op’s infrastructure to the town. Ann Arbor is Midwest’s next co-op/muni partnership.
BoCo joins these jurisdictions in creative co-op partnerships. During the Summit, BoCo discovered two co-ops providing or planning to offer broadband services in the county: Craig Botetourt Electric Cooperative (CBEC) from the west, and BARC Electric Co-op from the north. BoCo is also partnering with Lumos Networks on fiber deployment.
Terry and BoCo’s leadership are executing several partnerships that should ensure most BoCo residents and businesses receive fiber coverage. BARC scored $2 million in federal grant to build broadband. CBEC is putting in $2 million of their money and pursuing state grant funding in partnership with BoCo. In addition, Lumos Networks obtained Connect America Funding (ACAM) for upgrades to eligible areas to fiber.
As a way to make itself even more valuable as a partner, BoCo is considering building out afiber ring for their wide-area-network through the unserved middle area of the county.
“Communities cannot go into a project expecting to spend no money, having providers carry the full financial freight, and wanting little do with broadband once the project starts,” says Terry. “People won’t be happy with the results. Local government has to make it quick, easy, and cheap for providers to get involved.”
Later this year, BoCo plans to issue a RFP for this last stretch of unserved area. “From what we’ve seen of their work and capabilities, BARC, Craig-Botetourt, and Lumos Networks easily could be serious contenders for this project,” says Terry.
Broadband and economic development
Given all you can do with broadband, economic development still seems to lead the pack in terms how communities most expect broadband to benefit individuals and businesses. One of the big debates among economic developers is, do you use broadband to make your existing businesses stronger, or use the technology to attract businesses? Or maybe you give equal time to both outcomes.
Ken McFadyen has an interesting perspective on the topic. “With larger manufacturers, they generally assume that we have sufficient connectivity and the locations where our manufacturers operate, and we typically do offer connectivity. But I see real value in [usingbroadband for] small business development opportunities.”
But how do you balance retention versus attraction?
“Business attraction draws the investments into the community that allows for businessexpansion and retention to become a viable endeavor,” McFadyen says. “Conversely, our existing business base is what encourages new business ventures to consider locating, so business attraction and business retention are not mutually exclusive; however, a local emphasis on attraction suggests that the benefits would deliver greater economic activity more efficiently for the community.”
Each community has to determine what type of economic development outcomes they should use broadband to pursue. When I surveyed members of the International Economic Development Corporation about how they saw broadband impacting economic development, I asked survey respondents to critique six outcomes.
How would you rank these outcomes:
1) attracting new businesses,
2) making local companies more competitive,
3) revising depressed business districts,
4) revising depressed communities,
5) improving individuals’ ability to earn income, and
6) increasing home-based businesses.
Botetourt County has done a lot of great things. Among those achievements is the extent to which the County leadership has educated and motivated their constituents about the broadband project. The success of these networks is heavily dependent upon that support.
No less important is the broadband team’s willingness to gather as much knowledge about broadband from as many diverse sources as possible. The scope and inclusiveness of the BoCo Summit should be a best practice that every community tries to emulate.