Albemarle County is dedicated to protecting its rural areas. But one aspect of life in the country is keeping an estimated one-third of its citizens from fully living in the 21st century, and that’s the digital divide—the lack of access to affordable high-speed internet, which, in this day and age, seems to be a basic human necessity.
“We’re one of the richest counties in Virginia,” says county resident Kimberly Powell. “There are third-world countries that are totally covered by high-speed internet.”
The Federal Communications Commission recently redefined broadband as a 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed, but in most rural areas of Albemarle County, existing internet services are unable to perform even the FCC’s older standard of 10 mbps down and 1 mbps up.
“We think broadband is a critical utility for everyone,” says Deputy County Executive Bill Letteri, who adds that the lack of service largely affects students in the education system, people who work from home, security and even access to health care. “There’s not a practical solution, unless [internet service providers] just come forward and say, ‘we’ll just do it out of the goodness of our hearts.’ That’s a losing proposition.”
Mike Culp, the county’s director of information technology, says there are pockets of underserved areas in all of Albemarle’s rural areas including, but not limited to, Cobham, Howardsville to Esmont (Scottsville is served); west of Batesville; Afton to Greenwood; Burnley Station Road near Gordonsville; and Browns Gap Turnpike up to Greene County, Mint Springs Park and Emerald Ridge.
“The terrain and low housing density of Albemarle’s rural areas make it expensive to provide broadband services,” he says. And because the county does not intend to become a broadband service provider, it’s working to partner further with existing and new providers to bridge the service gaps.
What’s available in the county?
For those who live in areas that are already served, there are plenty of internet options—as long as one’s willing to pay the price.
For a one-year promotional rate of $35 or $45 per month in any served location, CenturyLink offers 10 mbps down or 25 mbps down DSL service, respectively.
In Keswick and North Garden, the same company offers a fiber internet promotion for $30 per month for 40 mbps down, $70 per month for 100 mbps down and $110 per month for 1,000 mbps down.
In served areas, Comcast offers a cable service of 10 mbps down for $50 per month, 25 mbps for $67 and 150 mbps down for $83.
In Earlysville, Keswick and Crozet, HughesNet Satellite internet is available starting at $60 per month for 10mbps down with a 20 gigabyte data cap.
In 2015, Albemarle County staff requested a broadband strategy report, and in October 2016, Virginia-based broadband planning firm Design Nine presented it to the Board of Supervisors, with a number of suggestions, including the formation of the county’s own Broadband Authority, treating broadband as a utility and updating the tower ordinance to allow rural residents to install their own 80′ utility poles by-right to help improve wireless internet.
And while the county is working toward solutions, the fact remains: 35,000 people don’t have adequate internet speeds.
Life at low speed
Powell lives in one of six residences on Bellair Farm—about two miles “as the crow flies” from Blenheim Vineyards, an area of the county that is already served. But at her home, the CenturyLink connection is so slow it takes about 20 minutes to load Netflix, and only if she’s trying to watch it between 6am and noon.
“After one in the afternoon, forget it,” she says. By that time, too many people are trying to surf the web on too many devices and Powell has little chance of squeezing in a single episode.
She says her internet connection sometimes works well for Facebook or Pinterest, but even those load times can be maddening.
“I know it drives my daughter crazy,” she says, about the 25-year-old Piedmont Virginia Community College student who often goes to school early or stays late to do her homework from a place with a reliable internet connection. “Looking back, I could almost cry because I wasn’t able to give her high-speed internet [in high school]. She was behind others in her class, socially.”
Have no idea what the difference between DSL and cable internet is? Never measured anything in megabits per second? No worries—we’re here to translate.
Internet—a global network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols.
Megabits per second—a unit used to measure bandwidth.
Broadband—high-speed internet. The generally accepted definition is 25 megabits per second down and three megabits per second up, or enough speed to do pretty much any internet activity one wants.
DSL internet—stands for digital subscriber line, which uses an existing two-wire copper telephone line connected to one’s home so service is delivered at the same time as landline telephone service. Customers can still place calls while surfing the web.
Cable internet—provides network edge connectivity from an internet service provider to an end user. It is integrated into the cable television infrastructure much like DSL, which uses the existing telephone network.
Satellite internet—transmits and receives data from a relatively small satellite dish on Earth and communicates with an orbiting geostationary satellite more than 20,000 miles above Earth’s equator.
Cellular internet—mobile broadband accessible through a cell phone, portable modem, USB wireless modem or tablet.
Fiber internet—the gold standard of residential internet connections, with much of the backbone of the internet deployed using fiber optic cables run to one’s home.
Wireless internet—often known as Wi-Fi, is a way of getting broadband internet without wires.
When Powell wants to watch an online aromatherapy class or a PBS program on the Brontë sisters, she travels about 12 miles to either the Gordon Avenue Library or the Scottsville Library at least twice a week to use the internet. There, she sits with her own laptop, while others crowd the library’s computers.
At the Scottsville Library, one of the most popular Wi-Fi hotspots in town, David Plunkett, the collections and technology manager, says they had to add two more public computers to fulfill the public’s need.
Jefferson-Madison Regional Library administration has offered free internet access for many years, according to Plunkett. He says the computers are often full at every branch.
As part of a pilot program that began April 1, each branch of JMRL has one Wi-Fi hotspot available for checkout. A mobile Wi-Fi hotspot is essentially a wireless access point that library patrons can take home to provide an internet connection, says Plunkett. Each device is about the size of a credit card and as thick as a cell phone, with just one button to turn it on.
“The idea was to meet the educational needs in our service area,” he says, and so far, all of the hotspots have stayed checked out for the allowed three-week period. There’s a waiting list of about 20 people, he says. The library is interested in supplementing regional schools in their one-to-one initiatives, in which each student is issued an electronic device to access the internet, digital course materials and textbooks, he adds.
In the fall, Plunkett says his crew will evaluate the demand for the hotspots. While each device only costs about $100, the data they use is much more expensive, and JMRL would need outside partnerships to afford a large number of devices.
For the pilot, the library spent “thousands of dollars” on two gigabytes of data per month for each device for a year—and even that is limited.
“They don’t stream and they’re blocked from social media,” he says. “Otherwise, if we just opened it up and handed it out, the first person that got on Netflix would use all the data up within a week or two.”
“We occasionally get people who drive through our neighborhood looking at property,” says Phillip Fassieux, who built a house for himself and his wife in Langdon Woods, the northwestern-most subdivision in the county. “They say it’s a beautiful development, but some of the first questions they ask are how much do the lots run for and is there internet out here.”
Put simply—there isn’t.
“Regardless of where people lie on the political spectrum, on where they believe the role of government is, internet is just as important as electricity nowadays,” he says.
While his property value has gone up since he moved into the neighborhood in 2013, he attributes that solely to the county changing its assessment software. “As for the demand—the buildout—there’s been very little movement on sales of lots because there’s no internet.”
At home, he uses satellite internet, or a service that transmits and receives data from a relatively small dish.
“Our internet doesn’t work when it’s cloudy or when it’s raining out,” he says. And it’s effectiveness is also based on demand, so during peak usage times, it slows down. For this reason, he maintains cell phone data coverage, but even that has caps and costs an additional $110 per month.
For some people, the idea of not having internet is somewhat incomprehensible.
“It’s such an abstract idea that so many people can’t process,” he says. “It’s an expectation of modern life now. …I wouldn’t take it so far as to say they paint me as being one of these live-off-the-land types, but the main signal that you get from folks is ‘why would you choose to live like that and how do you get things done?’”
When Fassieux wants to watch a movie, he and his wife travel 20 to 30 minutes into town to rent one because he doesn’t have the bandwidth to stream one. He also can’t have an internet-based security system to guard his home.
“Beyond the connectivity issue, the quality of living in the rural areas is unmatched, but it would be so greatly improved if we had reliable internet that was on par with the expected norm,” he continues.
Fassieux knows a thing or two about the web—he specializes in cyber security at the Rivanna Station on Route 29, a military base that holds the nation’s top three military intelligence gathering agencies: the National Ground Intelligence Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
At Culp’s recommendation, Fassieux has applied for a seat on the county’s proposed Broadband Authority Board as its civilian voting member, because he has some ideas about how the county could improve broadband accessibility and save itself big bucks doing so.
But first, here’s what’s already in the works.
To help all of Albemarle join the 21st century, Culp says there are a couple projects in the pipeline.
In March, Governor Terry McAuliffe awarded the county a $118,000 grant to increase broadband access as part of the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative. The VATI funds are intended for CenturyLink equipment upgrades, and company spokesperson Debbie Keyser says the internet service provider plans to use the existing infrastructure and utilities to reach at least three of the underserved areas, including Mint Springs Park, this spring.
Culp and CenturyLink representatives will meet with Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development on May 8 to discuss the requirements for the grant. And if they agree, to accept it.
Last year’s report from Design Nine details a market research study aimed at residents and businesses. None of the respondents answered they were “very satisfied” with the current speed of their internet service and 72 percent said they were “not at all satisfied.” While 96 percent of the people who answered said they had an internet connection, the same number said they needed better service.
Approximately 68 percent of the people who responded to the county’s survey already use CenturyLink. Culp says most people likely use CenturyLink because it has the most landline phone service customers in the county and it offers DSL internet service through those lines.
In August 2015, CenturyLink also accepted $500 million per year for six years from the FCC’s Connect America Fund, to serve 1.2 million locations in the nation, including 49,000 rural households in the Commonwealth. It was required to provide speeds of at least 10 mbps down and 1 mbps up. By July 1, the company will report the locations it served in 2016.
“They’ve made good progress,” Culp says, but CenturyLink has a few years to finish its buildout. “It’s a complex little world we live in.”
Although more connectivity is a major plus, Fassieux fears the county is headed down the wrong path.
“At the end of the day, the county should be pivoting its plans from a buried fiber backbone [with CenturyLink] to a wireless one,” he says, adding that the benefits of wireless internet are its cost, rapid deployability, network scalability and ease of updating as technology improves.
“My concern is that because CenturyLink has such a significant portion of market share here in Albemarle County, we’re not very likely to see the Board [of Supervisors] shift,” says Fassieux. “If I was a betting man, we’re going to waste millions on digging trenches when wireless is the future. The county just needs to embrace it.”
South Carolina-based telecommunications company Home Telecom offers a tool on its website to help prospective customers determine how much bandwidth—or speed—they need to support the internet activities happening simultaneously in their households. Bandwidth is measured in megabits per second—here’s how many of those they estimate are needed for a single user to do each of the following activities on the web.
Basic web use
Including email, browsing the internet and social media
1 user | 2 mbps (DSL)
Including music streaming via Spotify, Pandora or iTunes Radio
1 user | 2 mbps (DSL)
Including sharing photos and videos online
1 user| 10 mbps (DSL)
Streaming HD video
Streamed from Netflix, YouTube or Amazon Prime Instant Video
1 user | 10 mbps (DSL)
Including conferencing or video chat via Skype or Google Hangouts
1 user | 10 mbps (DSL)
1 user | 25 mbps (cable or fiber)
Including downloading and uploading large files via Dropbox
1 user | 50 mbps (cable or fiber)
1 user | 50 mbps (cable or fiber)
So let’s take a typical four-person family with all four enjoying basic web use, media sharing and one kid streaming Netflix alone in her room while her brother plays an online video game and listens to Spotify in his. We’ll say one parent is on a conference call in which she’s downloading large files to review while her husband watches “Breaking Bad” in the family room—all of a sudden, the family is using 155mbps, which requires fiber internet, the fastest option currently available.
According to the survey taken by Albemarle County, 69 percent of respondents indicated they use a DSL service, while only 8 percent use fiber, satellite or cellular wireless internet.
Home Telecom notes that speed recommendations are based on providing “a good to great” internet experience, and while all internet activities will work at slower speeds, users will experience slower response times, lags and buffering.