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Loudoun Gov’t, Internet Providers Aim For Western Broadband Fix

© Leesburg Today - 09/24/2015

What does a vintner trying to process a credit-card sale have in common with a school kid working on a homework assignment? Not much, right?

Well, if they're both in western Loudoun, they might have trouble finishing either of those tasks because of a poor Internet connection.

That's a possibility for as many as 30,000 county households estimated to be underserved in terms of Web service, according to Loudoun's Communications Commission.

But the county supervisors who represent most of those underserved households as well as Internet service providers are working to fix the problem.

Because it's their constituents who often are Internet-poor, Supervisors Janet S. Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) and Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) have been addressing this issue for some time.

They've met with Internet service providers and other government officials, including Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10), coordinated with the work of the Communications Commission and held public meetings.

Their latest efforts were supported by their peers as the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this summer in favor of several moves designed to address the broadband situation, including examining whether county application fees could be lowered as an incentive for broadband companies to do business in western Loudoun and issuing a public request for information on whether a public-private partnership could help in the mission of providing more and better connections.

In a discussion before that vote, Clarke, Higgins and county Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) noted the importance of good Internet service to businesses and students.

It's a necessity for growing rural businesses, Higgins said, pointing out the problems that some wineries have mentioned.

""They can't get a credit-card swipe, for crying out loud, in western Loudoun County,"" he said.

And Clarke and York made the case for access for education, with York saying that ""if our students can't do their homework at home, we have a problem.""

Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), however, made clear that although he supported obtaining information on public-private partnership options for fixing the broadband gaps, he didn't want to see revenue collected from taxpayers throughout the county spent on a problem that only residents in a certain area face.

And in public-private partnerships, Buona said, government spending often is included in the arrangement: ""That's usually what the 'public' side means.""

Meanwhile, as the supervisors await reports from the county staff on that partnership subject and on the other measures they approved in July, Internet service providers continue to try to improve western Loudoun connectivity simply as part of their businesses.

Perhaps the most prominent of those ISPs is Ashburn-based All Points Broadband.

All Points bought three smaller ISPs-Roadstar Internet Inc., Loudoun Wireless and Lucketts.net-to create a larger company and is spending $6 million this year to upgrade broadband in the county.

So the idea isn't that broadband hasn't been available in western Loudoun, All Points CEO Jimmy Carr said.

""Cellular and satellite Internet are widely available,"" Carr said in a recent email. ""The issue is that those technologies, and previous generations of fixed wireless equipment, cannot deliver the volume of data that consumers want today. On the upgraded network, our most popular plan provides streaming video and unlimited data.""

All Points, which provides wired and wireless connections, has five crews working six days a week to upgrade service in the area. But Carr noted that even with those resources, double those employed by others previously, the effort still takes time.

""I wish we could do it overnight,"" he said in an interview.

Carr's outfit-and other ISPs-face two main challenges. One is that the small number and low density of homes in western Loudoun make getting a good return on investment challenging.

That's a reason there isn't more cable already in the ground there to provide wired broadband service.

Said Comcast spokeswoman Aimee Metrick: ""We want to serve as many customers as is geographically and economically feasible, and continuously evaluate opportunities to deliver our innovative technology to new and existing customers. However, there are some low-density areas where it is not economic for Comcast or other providers to build out.""

Verizon spokesman John Bonomo also noted that the franchise agreements his company and Comcast have with Loudoun were written as cable television contracts. That means that, though the companies offer Internet service, it's difficult for the county to make demands about broadband.

""Verizon is meeting and exceeding the requirements of the franchise agreement with the county and continues to deploy video services to certain parts of the county,"" Bonomo said in an email. ""Verizon has worked hard over the years to meet its video deployment obligations and to provide the residents of the county with a high-quality competitive option for video services.""

All Points, for its part, can better address the housing density issue as one larger operator than its three smaller forebears. It can employ a bigger footprint and spread out costs, Carr said.

The other challenge is about terrain. The rural scenery in western Loudoun may be a selling point for residents and visitors, but it can wreak havoc with wireless signals.

Here's how: If there's no cable in the ground to bring Internet service to a home, a company can try to beam a wireless signal there. But that means that receiving equipment needs to either be able to ""see"" a transmitting tower or be close to seeing it.

However, if a wireless provider can get service to one home, it can install hardware that can then transmit that signal to others nearby.

For example, an All Points crew at a house in Unison recently showed a visitor a small pole that could see a large transmitting tower in the distance. That pole was connected to equipment that can then send the signal to other homes.

Carr said that some have a bias against wireless service, but that his company provides a wireless package on its upgraded network in which two devices can stream high-definition video simultaneously with no buffering.

Fixed wireless such as All Points offers also is the primary access to Internet service for the majority of the world's underserved communities, he said.

Those wireless signals are sent over the unlicensed broadband spectrum, or Wi-Fi, as it is commonly known.

However, Marty Dougherty, who founded Roadstar, pointed out that the federal government owns other, licensed, airwaves and that the money it gets from selling those signals could be provided to the states to pay to install more cable in the ground for wired service. The Federal Communications Commission's most recent auction cleared more than $40 billion.

After all, Dougherty said recently, the creation of the telephone network was subsidized by taxes.

The big question with all of this, though, he said, is one that is commonly asked in government and business: ""Who would pay for it?""

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