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Broadband access push in region advancing

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

Efforts to spread broadband access to underserved areas in the valley continue but some may not need it.

Others may find it tough to find financial help from the federal government -- the same people pushing for more rural access to broadband.

"We've looked at federal programs to help us speed the implementation to the underserved and unserved areas of the county," said Brandy Rosser, grants and special projects coordinator for Warren County. "A lot of these programs do require that you do have a telecommunications plan in place so that you have firm documentation about what you know isn't served."

Warren County officials are on the third draft of its telecommunications plan, according to Rosser. Atlanta Technology Consultants are working with the county to craft the plan. Rosser noted that staff working on the plan are getting ready to call a meeting of the telecommunications management team. Rosser said she expects work on the plan to conclude in the next six weeks.

With the telecommunications plan in place, the team would then start looking at federal grant programs for which the county might apply to speed up the broadband initiatives, Rosser said.

"Unfortunately, with our income levels and our unemployment rate, we don't qualify for a lot," Rosser said. "When you look at counties like Page County, where the unemployment rate is so much higher, their level of service was really, really low compared to ours."

Approximately 80 to 85 percent of Warren County has access to some kind of broadband service, according to Rosser.

"When you have a county like Page County where the unserved population is significantly higher, federal programs are much more willing to come in there because they're reaching a larger segment of that population," Rosser explained. "When they come in here we have just spots that are affected by the terrain. They're stuck in the valley or they're on the wrong side of the mountain that kind of hampers them from getting the service. So it's harder for us to go after federal money because we're going after several small pockets."

Even if a county resident wants to pay for broadband access, he or she may not get it.

"A lot of our Internet service providers base their willingness to bring the service on the number of houses per mile and we just haven't reached that level because some of the more rural areas, some of the lots may be 20 acres, it throws you on the number of houses per linear mile and Internet service providers willingness to come in and run the [fiber-optic cable]," Rosser said.

Warren County may also look at increasing broadband access in the underserved areas through wireless devices, according to Rosser.

Frederick County also has begun its work on identifying the served and underserved areas of the locality. Officials earlier this week held a public meeting on the broadband initiative. More information is available at www.co.frederick.va.us/broadband_new.aspx.

Shenandoah County currently does not have a committee assigned to address the broadband topic, if the locality faces a problem with vast, underserved areas, according County Administrator Douglas Walker.

The initiative to push for greater access to broadband in the underserved areas also comes from the Obama Administration and top elected leaders such as U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., a longtime supporter of technological advancement.

Warner put forth two proposals to promote a more rapid and cost-effective expansion of broadband networks. President Barack Obama signed an executive order Thursday on Warner's proposals to make broadband construction along federal roads and in federally owned buildings cheaper and more efficient, according to a press release from the senator's office.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall noted, however, that the senator's piece of the executive order signed by the president specifically addresses broadband installed in federal buildings or on roads and land.

Current procedures for approving broadband infrastructure projects on properties controlled or managed by the federal government -- large tracts of land, roads, buildings -- vary depending on the agency, according to the release. The executive order ensures the agencies take steps to adopt a uniform approach in allowing broadband carriers to build networks on the properties and speed up the delivery of connectivity to communities, businesses and schools, the release states.

Warner in the release states the order "will help bring broadband to underserved communities across Virginia and the nation while saving both money and time with little federal investment."

The first of Warner's proposals, advanced through legislation introduced with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, authorities the installation of small, wireless base stations in all publicly accessible federal buildings, according to the release. The initiative should help prevent dropped cell phone calls which can occur inside buildings and in rural areas from poor coverage, the release states.

The second proposal, in legislation introduced with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., directs federal agencies to help carriers time broadband "deployment" work to when roads already are under constructions.

For more information about broadband initiatives and to see the availability of broadband in areas of the state, visit http://wired.virginia.gov/broadband.shtml.

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