A group of Loudoun County residents have launched an independent online survey to aid local leaders’ efforts in improving broadband access by determining the county’s needs.
On Feb. 10, the Loudoun Broadband Alliance (LBA) published the survey as part of its mission to “promote development of accessible, reliable, and affordable broadband Internet access" for residents and businesses in Loudoun.
The nonprofit’s effort comes as the need for broadband access has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents and business owners have turned to the internet to stay connected in the classroom, at work, and to keep businesses open.
“Rather than be just a squeaky wheel, LBA has stepped up to be part of the solution,” Kevin Noll, co-founder of the alliance, said at a recent Loudoun County Board of Supervisors business meeting.
“LBA has chartered a survey that we believe will provide us with the most up to date and accurate demographic information about broadband in Loudoun County,” he said. “Using the results, LBA hopes to work with county staff and supervisors to set measurable and realistic goals for broadband improvements in Loudoun County.”
LBA hopes the independent survey, found at www.lbasurvey.org, will establish a revised baseline dataset for broadband expansion opportunities.
Hunt Engineers, Architects and Land Surveyors is conducting the survey.
Along with providing demographic data, LBA said the survey questions are intended to understand the needs and desires of residents and businesses regarding existing and future internet services.
A portion of the survey includes a speed test that will collect residential carrier information, upload and download speeds, as well as latency measurements, among other data.
The co-founders have not set a termination date for the survey, but they expect to analyze the data after 30 and 60 days respectively.
The results of the community-wide survey are expected to enable LBA to generate updated mapping that can highlight coverage opportunities for broadband expansion to underserved and unserved areas in Loudoun County.
The co-founders said the results may be used to assist LBA’s research toward acquiring state and federal grants, loan funding and other opportunities that support and accelerate broadband internet development in the county.
Simultaneously, as the county announced in September 2020 it’s expediting efforts to bring broadband to underserved and unserved areas, the alliance was formed from a Facebook group called “True Broadband For Western Loudoun.”
Eusebio Cantone, founder of the Facebook group and LBA co-founder, said the group has more than doubled since it began.
Cantone said the same frustrations for residents still remain, regardless of the provider, or if it’s wired or wireless. The uptick started when more people started teleworking and schooling from home last year when the pandemic started, he said.
“It seemed like it's made things worse, but the problem has always been there,” Cantone said. “I think this kind of made us realize that something's got to happen.”
“This is the new norm and I don't think it's going to go back to where it was before,” he said. “But the problem has always been there before the pandemic— this definitely put it under the magnifying glass.”
As part of the board’s recent plan to expedite the deployment of broadband to underserved and unserved areas, county staff is providing quarterly updates to the board with recommendations to prioritize and accelerate the expansion of broadband services to residential areas.
County staff are also providing information to the board about the structure and of existing cable TV franchise agreements and legal options available to negotiate contracts that will improve broadband access.
Twenty-one percent of county students live in rural areas of Loudoun County, according to county staff. County leaders said such students are struggling to stay online to learn and complete their schoolwork.
Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington (R), who represents areas in western Loudoun, said in a recent newsletter, “Expansion of high-speed internet access throughout rural Loudoun has always been a priority for my office,” he said.
“But with 100 percent virtual schooling and so many of our residents teleworking, it's now a top priority.”
Catoctin Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R), who also represents parts of western Loudoun, recently joined officials from AT&T during a video call providing details to residents about the company’s plans to construct a 125-foot cell tower on Loudoun County’s Short Hill Mountain to address the need for improved wireless coverage for residents, businesses and public safety members.
Noll, who serves on the county’s communications commission, said the alliance is grateful for the county’s effort.
Noll said he hopes the county’s plan clearly states a goal that will reflect real improvements in broadband access to Loudoun residents. The goal, he said, should include metrics for broadband accessibility, reliability, and affordability.
LBA also hopes the board will have a monthly report with county staff on their progress. The board has scheduled quarterly meetings with staff.
“LBA is here to work for the residents of Loudoun County, and we want to work with the residents of Loudoun County, and we invite them to join in the effort with us,” Noll said.
U.S. lawmakers are also working to address broadband accessibility.
On March 12, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) joined lawmakers introducing two pieces of legislation to increase access to broadband internet in Virginia.
The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act and the Hotspots and Online Technology and Services Procurement for our Tribes and States (HOTSPOTS) Act are aimed at supporting those in rural and underserved communities.
Warner said in a prepared statement that broadband is a necessity and for many Americans the lack of access to affordable high-speed internet is a barrier to connect with health care providers, participate in distance learning and work safely from home.
“In the commonwealth alone, more than 700,000 Virginians lack access to broadband. That’s why I’m proud to introduce these two bills to invest in broadband infrastructure and make it easier for states, tribes, and territories to quickly expand internet connectivity in rural and underserved communities,” Warner said.
More information about the LBA, can be found at loudounbroadbandalliance.org.