ROCKY MOUNT — Homeowners in the Walnut Run community at Smith Mountain Lake long for faster, more reliable internet.

They were prepared to go to great lengths to get it. Homeowners association officials, who began talking with providers two years ago, were considering a special assessment that would impose a fee perhaps as high as $900 on each of the neighborhood’s 119 lots.

But thanks to a grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission’s Last Mile Broadband Program, that won’t be necessary.

Franklin County was awarded a $650,000 grant that will help to fund six broadband projects that will serve the Summit View Business Park and a number of residential areas, including Walnut Run.

Altogether, 29 miles of fiber will be laid, making service available to 615 homes and nearly 100 non-residential premises.

“We got the best case scenario,” said Vickie Doak, secretary of the Walnut Run HOA. “We’re so grateful.”

Doak already knows the first thing she’ll do once fiber reaches her home: FaceTime her grandkids.

The grant marks the first major broadband development in Franklin County. Localities across the region, including Botetourt, Bedford and Floyd counties, have been working to expand broadband access in rural areas in recent years.

Gov. Ralph Northam visited the Summit View Business Park on Thursday, applauding Franklin County on its efforts. The governor has set expanding broadband coverage to all Virginians within a decade as a top priority.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to lift up rural Virginia,” Northam said. “And the one thing I hear every day is we need universal broadband.”

The state has ramped up its funding for broadband projects through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative from $4 million to $19 million. Though Northam initially sought $50 million, he said the nearly five-fold increase will have a great impact. The money helps to subsidize construction costs and provide last-mile services to unserved areas.

“It’s that final mile that’s expensive; nobody can do that by themselves,” Northam said.

The governor stressed that expanding broadband is a “team effort” requiring local, state and federal governments to work together, along with service providers. Franklin County is partnering with local provider Shentel on four of the six grant-supported projects.

Two-pronged approach

Franklin County began its broadband effort in 2017, when the county partnered with the nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology to conduct a needs assessment survey. In November of that year, the board of supervisors voted to create a broadband authority, made up of the same members.

At the end of 2018, the broadband authority hired a consultant, Blacksburg-based Design Nine, to draft a master broadband plan. The county received a $20,000 grant to support the consultant’s work.

This year, the county put out a request for proposals. On Tuesday the broadband authority voted to move forward with proposals from Blue Ridge Towers and Point Broadband that will utilize both fixed wireless and fiber technologies. The next step is beginning conceptual design for a phased implementation.

The county has not yet entered into a contract with either provider, said Steve Sandy, director of planning and community development.

That two-prong approach aligns with the most recent draft of Design Nine’s plan, which states that improving broadband in Franklin County will require a combination of strategies, including fiber to the home or business and also fixed point wireless, which relies on towers to provide service.

The consultants recommended a fixed point wireless expansion utilizing a network of existing towers, new towers and shorter community poles that could be built out in phases. They also suggested extending fiber already in place to nearby households.

From the beginning, Sandy said, officials expected the county would take a “hybrid approach.” Fixed wireless is likely to be a solution in the more remote areas of the county.

“We want to do fiber wherever possible and do the fixed wireless where we have to,” Sandy said.

Broadband as a selling point

Chuck Kirby, vice president of broadband programs at the Center for Innovative Technology, said population density is the biggest problem rural localities have when it comes to broadband.

When people are clustered closely together, he said, it’s easier for a provider to add new customers and recoup infrastructure costs.

“The more rural you get, the more the population density goes down, it makes the costs go up, it makes it harder to make the math work,” Kirby said.

And in the Roanoke Valley specifically, there are also topographical challenges.

“The beautiful views, the lakes, the rivers, the Blue Ridge Mountains — things that attract people to this area are the very things that actually make it very difficult to deploy broadband infrastructure in a cost effective manner,” Kirby said.

Broadband is a hot topic in the region, and also throughout the state. Kirby said the “stars are finally aligning” when it comes to connectivity. Both the federal and state governments are investing more in broadband, which Kirby attributes to changing attitudes about broadband. Today, he said, it’s viewed as a necessity.

Andrew Cohill, president and CEO of the county’s broadband consultant firm Design Nine, said broadband is an economic development tool, and also key to retaining and attracting young people.

“Local government getting involved in better broadband is not just about we want people to be able to watch Netflix on Friday night,” Cohill said.

As the desire to work from home grows in rural areas, something Cohill has observed from his work in various states, having a solid connection is ever more important. In client surveys, Cohill said his firm has found 25% to 30% of respondents say they are trying to work from home part or full time.

Real estate agents often tell Cohill that a lack of connectivity is depressing home values in some places.

“The availability or lack of availability of good broadband is changing where people choose to live,” Cohill said.

Public-private approach

Franklin County’s broadband struggles are two-fold, said Sandy, the planning director. There are people with no service, and then those with inadequate service. The county plans to ultimately address both.

Sandy said county residents have voiced a desire for better service.

“This is a need and it’s obviously where the future is going,” he said. “Everybody is connected, or would like to be.”

Franklin County officials have not indicated an interest in becoming a broadband provider. The county doesn’t provide its own water and sewer service, Sandy noted, instead leaving that to Western Virginia Water Authority. The same principle applies to broadband.

Instead, the county is focused on public-private partnerships, incentivizing existing providers to extend their networks to underserved areas.

The county has access to grant funding that private corporations do not, like money from the tobacco commission, which Sandy said could encourage the two to work together.

“That’s really what we’re after, is making projects come to fruition quicker and making projects that maybe didn’t make total economic sense before, make them more feasible,” Sandy said.

Grants are likely the most lucrative incentive the county could offer, Sandy said, but others include space on existing towers or land for new ones.

Though the goal is to get as many people connected as possible, Sandy said he’s trying to keep expectations realistic and develop a reasonable approach on which the county can actually deliver.

“What we can promise is that we’re going to make strides to improve broadband in Franklin County and increase the number of households that have access to good broadband service,” Sandy said.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County.

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