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Virginia Tech
Bedford County looks to broaden broadband
Taken from The Roanoke Times External Site
Written By Courtney Cutright
December 25, 2008

Officials say bringing faster Internet service to western areas of the county will help lure businesses.

The lack of high-speed access can be a deal breaker when it comes to attracting and retaining businesses, he said.

"Corporate locators will say no thanks and look elsewhere," Flynn said.

Several areas in the western portion of Bedford County, such as Montvale and Thaxton and even parts of Smith Mountain Lake, are underserved or not served at all when it comes to broadband Internet, County Administrator Kathleen Guzi said.

County officials are interested in expanding broadband to promote economic development, but the best route has not yet been determined. The board of supervisors has asked the county's economic development authority to explore options -- one of which could be establishing a broadband service authority that operates as a public-private partnership.

"What I was thinking is possibly appointing a subcommittee of the board to get into the nitty-gritty," authority board member Matthew Braud said at a recent meeting.

Braud and another board member, Kim McCabe, were appointed to serve on the subcommittee to explore startup costs and other factors and report back to the economic development authority board.

"It used to be we talked about broadband for something like a call center, that was a big high-tech business," Flynn said.

Now, a wide variety of businesses rely on the fast transfer of data made possible by broadband Internet, Flynn said.

At least eight other communities statewide, including Pulaski County and a regional network in the New River Valley, have established broadband authorities.

Broadband authorities may be eligible for tobacco commission grants, other grant money or bond funds for equipment and infrastructure under the Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act, said Bryan David, executive director of Region 2000 and the facilitator of a broadband authority in King George County. A grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and local dollars -- an investment of $40,000 --helped fund the infrastructure for the Pulaski County Wireless Integrated Network.

Public authorities can contract with private companies to provide broadband service. In Pulaski County, the authority charges Internet service providers for the amount of bandwidth used. Providers, in turn, charge each customer.

"Cash flows from the company are paying back debt," David said.

Jim Sandidge, Pulaski County's director of technology, said about 250 accounts are connected to the network, but the number of users is likely much higher.

Hilly terrain is the biggest challenge to Pulaski County's network, which relies on a "line of sight," Sandidge said.

The geography of Bedford County might be troublesome, too, and widespread coverage stretching from the Peaks of Otter to the valley of Chamblissburg is unlikely.

Approval from the State Corporation Commission is needed to form a broadband service authority and to grant a charter or certificate of incorporation.

Establishing a broadband service authority could be governed by a separate board, the economic development authority board or even the board of supervisors. Contractual relationships between the authority and providers are subject to the state's public procurement laws.

The board of supervisors has identified improving broadband service as a top priority.

Huddleston District Supervisor Roger Cheek said at least one business owner has told him if broadband access does not expand soon, he may have to move his business.

"One particular business in the county uses Internet a lot. He does prop repairs for boats. He has, for quite a while, been trying to get access to proper Internet. His business is dependent on it for quick information," Cheek said.

Creating a regional broadband authority through Region 2000 would make the most sense economically, he said. Region 2000 is a partnership covering a 2,000-square-mile area that encompasses Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties and the cities of Bedford and Lynchburg.

"It is a need and something I would like to see happen," Cheek said.

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