FLOYD — The average farmer in one of Southwest Virginia’s most rural, one-stoplight counties will soon have faster internet service than most people living in Roanoke or even Washington, D.C.
Citizens Telephone Cooperative plans to lay around 1,700 miles of fiber-optic cable over the next three years, delivering next generation gigabit internet to front doors across 97% of Floyd County by 2021.
By the end of this year, the growing network will reach 60% of the county and is poised to become the envy of rural communities everywhere struggling with internet access issues.
Gigabit internet is considered the future-proof gold standard, but it is not widely available in Floyd County’s neighboring population centers including Christiansburg, Blacksburg or Roanoke.
The Federal Communications Commission classifies high-speed internet as download speeds of 25 mbps. Citizens’ service will be 40 times as fast.
“There is not another community as rural as Floyd that’s going to be completely connected as soon as Floyd,” said Evan Feinman, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief broadband advisor. “I think it’s very safe to say this is leading the way on truly rural communities.”
Internet infrastructure is expensive in sparsely populated areas, where providers have to lay miles of fiber to reach a single customer. The math rarely makes sense, so providers often haven’t updated technology and entire communities have been left behind.
But Citizens enjoys a couple of advantages over other providers.
The entire buildout is expected to cost $35 million, which will be partially offset by $10 million in federal funding through the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program.
Citizens also has a somewhat unique business model that caters to less profitable endeavors.
The company began as a community organized effort to operate a local telephone system when other companies didn’t want to serve the Floyd County area in 1914. It has grown over the years and expanded into internet service.
But Citizens remains a membership cooperative, meaning the business is owned by its customers instead of traditional shareholders.
Citizens CEO Greg Sapp said it will cost the company an average of $1,800 for each home it connects to the fiber network. In return, Citizens is charging the customer a one-time $199 fee and is shouldering the rest of the installation costs itself.
The company expects the network to break even after about eight years of monthly service bills, which is not a very attractive business model by traditional standards.
“But they’re willing to do that because that’s what their membership needs,” Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology Broadband Project Manager Jean Plymale said. “Their focus is on their membership and their membership needs. It’s a unique situation.”
Many of the homes getting connected to Citizens’ fiber network over the next few years have never had broadband access before, leapfrogging decades of technology development and going straight to the cutting edge.
Soon, they’ll be streaming Netflix in high definition, downloading movies in seconds and telecommuting to work via video conferencing.
Floyd County’s Community and Economic Development Director Lydeana Martin spoke at a Citizen’s announcement event last week, noting that her community doesn’t have an interstate, rail, a port or university. Instead, this fiber network is going to be the secret weapon that connects Floyd County to the rest of the world.
“We don’t want our customers who live in rural Floyd County to have any disadvantage to living in rural Floyd County as it relates to matters of technology,” Sapp said. “We want them to have the same access as anybody anywhere.”
The rural divide is especially pronounced in Virginia, where rough terrain and low population densities have left large swaths of the population with no or little internet connectivity.
Northam took up the cause last summer, setting a goal of universal access within the next 10 years.
Tech giant Microsoft has taken a swing at the digital divide with new wireless technologies in Southside, but that’s still in the experimental phase.
Some local governments have tried to attract state and federal grants to help subsidize private providers with mixed results.
Others have built their own government-owned networks to compete directly, like the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which operates more than 80 miles of fiber.
Citizens will be offering only gigabit speeds on its new network, with different prices based on the amount of data used. The cheapest 50 gigabyte plan costs $39.95 per month, while a 500 gigabyte plan costs $80 per month.
For comparison, Shentel advertises plans in Christiansburg that come with 150 mbps download speeds for $80 per month.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, attended Citizens’ announcement event last week, praising the efforts and pointing to the funding role the federal government has played in this and other projects.
He said his job is to keep telling stories like this to make sure it remains a priority in Washington.
“Right now, in the commonwealth of Virginia, the most modern county is Floyd County,” Griffith said during his public remarks. “Welcome to gig country.”