Virginia Uses Self-Help Program for Rural Broadband
Virginia Uses Self-Help Program for Rural Broadband
Virginia Uses Self-Help Program for Rural Broadband

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    While some states have a Connected Nation franchise leading their broadband efforts, the Commonwealth of Virginia has something better. It has Karen Jackson, a one-woman broadband evangelist who leads government effort to bring broadband to rural areas. She, her program, and the local officials who follow it, are a case study in how a high-energy, high-efficiency state program can save millions of taxpayer dollars and produce results in the most rural of areas.

    The bottom line for their approach to rural broadband is startling. Franklin County, Va., a rural county of 721 square miles, was able to help a local wireless broadband provider bring the cost of building a network down from an estimated $500,000 to around $80,000. And instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for outsiders to come into an area, local officials can instead consult a simple web site as a guide to bringing in broadband.

    Jackson is the director of the Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance, which was created two years ago by Va. Gov. Tim Kaine, but she has worked since the 1990s to develop a broadband program in Virginia. “I’m a staff of one. For the past 10 years, I have run around the state on an ad hoc basis to help communities,” Jackson said. In 2007, she helped to organize a broadband roundtable for the state, which brought together 72 members from around the state and which was led by former Gov. (now Sen.) Mark Warner and Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s Secretary of Technology. After the roundtable submitted its report last fall, Jackson and an outreach committee of the larger group hit the road again. “It turned out better than most people anticipated,” Jackson said.

    Out of that effort came the state government’s broadband tool kit, a collection of steps that local officials, who presumably have some broadband in their offices, can use to bring broadband to their communities. While some skeptics dismissed the toolkit as “just another Web site,” Jackson said, the site’s utility is now proven, not only in Virginia. She has had inquiries from around the country.

    The toolkit is built around the philosophy that worked in Franklin County and elsewhere around Virginia that starts with the local vision that broadband is needed and then whittles away costs for commercial providers so that broadband can become a reality. Or, as Jackson put it, the toolkit is build to help communities “who have nothing go to having something.” They do it with a different model of public-private partnership aimed at shaving costs from a private sector project through taking an inventory of what assets a locality has to leverage. The toolkit leads users through a check list of items, including taking an inventory of assets that the local government has to offer, including radio towers, buildings, rights of way, or municipal utilities.

    As the site advises, “Many times communities embroiled in a broadband deployment fail to leverage assets that are readily available and obtainable. Taking time to inventory (and quantify the value of) assets belonging to the community, or that are publically ‘influencable’ can have a dramatic (positive) effect on the amount of financing necessary to complete a network build-out as well as having the potential to extend the reach of the deployment with little/no incremental cost.”

    Jackson advises also concentrating on potential big customers, such as a health clinic that could use better connectivity and looking for rural health money. Homeland security funds could beef up local emergency responder capabilities, which could then be leveraged.

    Sandie Terry, the Information Technology director for Franklin County, is one of the believers. “Karen gets credit for everything I did,” Terry said in an interview. Terry said a formal broadband assessment wasn’t necessary in her area because “my phone is ringing off the hook” with inquiries about better services. “It wasn’t an issue. I had demand myself at home.” Cable and telephone companies weren’t about to build in her area, but an inventory of county assets revealed a system of towers that were already in place, as well as some new ones planned for public safety radio.

    In a brief video Terry explained the county exchanged space on their towers for wireless services. “We managed to cover 70% of our county in less than two years with an initial investment of $38,000 and $50,000 grant.” Meanwhile, the wireless provider, B2X, is growing like crazy. In three years, it has grown to the point in which it has invested in $1.6 million in assets in the county, serving 1,500 residential customers and 60 businesses, and is providing service to county government buildings.

    Bryan David is another example of a grass-roots broadband expert who uses the same methodology as Jackson’s toolkit, albeit one he developed while working in King George County, Va., a region that includes the growing area around Fredericksburg. David, now executive director of, a five-county economic development organization with Lynchburg at its core, also is a devotee of reducing private-sector financial risks for broadband deployment while providing assistance from the local government.

    In Fredericksburg and environs, an area 47 miles south of Washington, D.C. that has evolved into a suburb of the capital, “I knew intuitively that broadband is a transformational technology,” David said. As county administrator from 2005 through last year, David saw the growth from northern Virginia south came with an influx of residents who had broadband connectivity at work but, at first, dial-up at home in rural areas. “There is a huge pent up angst” over broadband, David added, “I can’t pick up the phone without people complaining about dial-up.”

    As David analyzed the options from having local government provide broadband much as it provides water and sewer services to letting the market bring broadband to rural areas, he looked for something in between. His public/private partnership model, like Jackson’s, is built not only around giving wireless providers access to county “vertical assets,” aka towers and buildings, but also helping to secure favorable financing terms for transmitters and equipment using the backing of the local government.

    One particular advantage in Virginia is its Wireless Service Authorities Act that gives local governments more powers to enable a broadband provider to operate by creating a separate legal authority to make agreements. David noted that King George County created its own Wireless Authority in 2005, and the result has been that 70 percent of the county is now covered with 1.5 mbps broadband service.

    David will be providing technical assistance to Bedford County, Va., which is exploring its own wireless authority.

    What Jackson’s, Terry’s and David’s work shows is that localities are capable of evaluating their own broadband situations and of crafting remedies. While Connected Nation, to name one example, would charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for mapping, Jackson said “the state can do this by themselves. We’ve done our own mapping. We didn’t have to hire somebody to put the toolkit together. I think a state can easily take the toolkit and do what we’ve done and what Connected Nation is doing without spending a whole lot of money.” Terry is working with Ferrum College, in Franklin County, to help with mapping efforts.

    Jackson said that the CN model, to go into every county and create an “eteam” to evaluate broadband potential, isn’t necessary. “To me, I need a local team to lead the effort. What happens when that [outside] team leaves?” She frowns on “an artificially created team” for a locality: “That’s the fundamental difference [with Connected Nation]. Our version of the [CN] e-teams is our web site. There are a lot of initiatives driven by the local planning district, by a town, by somebody who already has a structure. We feel through our virtual version we can do that. The state doesn’t have to pay for e-teams all over the place.”