Appalachian Power broadband project could benefit three New River Valley counties

New River Valley News

(WFXR) — Three southwest Virginia counties are making moves to solve the problem of slow internet.

Pulaski, Bland, and Montgomery counties are looking to work with Appalachian Power on a new pilot project that would work with local internet providers to supply underserved areas with high-speed internet.

“COVID-19 has been, really, an eye-opener, especially with people working from home, education from home,” said Bland County Administrator, Dr. Eric Workman.

Montgomery County had already done some legwork with getting studies done amongst its underserved population, so the clock was ticking for Bland and Pulaski counties to do the same.

The two counties had less than a month to gather input from their residents, via an online survey on internet quality.

“Who our internet provider is, what our service speeds that we experience are, if we experience any outages, how long those outages may have lasted,” said Adam Fariss, a Pulaski County resident and business owner who recently took the survey.

Workman and Pulaski County Administrator, Jonathan Sweet were surprised at how many ended up taking the survey with such a short time window.

Over 1,300 people took the survey.

“That was critical to this process,” said Sweet. “We don’t go any further without that feedback, without that data.”

The three counties will now present their findings to Appalachian Power, who will in-turn apply with the Virginia State Corporation Commission for the project’s approval.

“We hope that everybody has approved services,” Workman said. “That’s the goal is to have approved services everywhere.”

Sweet and Workman, alike, intend to use the added broadband capabilities as a way of marketing their counties to businesses and potential residents.

Fariss, who owns Iron Heart Winery in rural Pulaski County has had his fair share of slow internet in southwest Virginia.

“Every time we produce a new label for our wine, it has to be submitted to the Federal government via the internet. We have to upload a high-definition image; the application is multiple pages. It’s a long process.”

Broadband is defined by having 25MB of download speed and 3MB for upload speed.

Farris has less than that, around 15MB download and 3MB upload, and he says he rarely sees those numbers.

“We usually go to one of our loved ones’ houses or a place of business in town (Dublin) to use the internet,” the winery owner said.

It’s part of the lifestyle, though, according to Fariss.

Southwest Virginia is known for its beautiful mountain views and outdoor activities, not the most hospitable environment for internet coverage.

“That’s why I live out here is because of that desire to be out in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, but it’s also nice to have, you know, modern-day technology available at your fingertips,” he said.

If approved, the project with Appalachian Power stands to benefit 15,000 residents just like Fariss, who says it’s needed now more than ever.

“The pandemic isn’t what promulgated this but perhaps what’s expedited this particular project,” Sweet said, remarking on how broadband has been a county priority since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will take some time before these fiber optic cables are installed, should the project be approved.

In the meantime, at least in Pulaski, there will be new communication towers and hotspots installed to act as a “band-aid” as the county awaits it’s more permanent solution for high-speed internet.

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