If you don’t live in a small town or rural community, you probably don’t have a clue how difficult it is to participate in the 21st-century economy. But a Roanoke Times article paints a vivid picture of life in South Boston and Halifax County in Virginia’s Southside region.
Television producer Kevin Peade started his business when everything was on film and a remote location was not a handicap. But the rest of the world has moved to digital, and local broadband connections are so slow during the day, when others are online, that he literally works at night.
Brenda Short got rid of her computer years ago because there wasn’t any point in keeping it around anymore. If she absolutely, positively needs to access the Internet, she drives six miles to her office to get a connection.
A local church canceled its internet service when a pastor left, only to find out it couldn’t get back online later because the network was so overloaded that it wasn’t taking new customers.
Roanoke Times reporter Jacob Demmit compiles other examples of how a small town struggles when the rest of the world does business with a faster, high-broadband metabolism.
There’s a local DMV Select office that struggles with a connection so slow that it often can’t process credit cards. A farmer said he tried satellite internet for a while but ultimately decided he was paying too much for a connection that was hardly usable. One Halifax County resident runs an entire lumber business, including billing for international orders, from his cellphone.
Nationally, only four percent of urban dwellers lack access to a 25 Mbps connection, according to 2016 data from the FCC, the Roanoke Times says. In rural America, the number is 20 percent. But in the Halifax County community of Nathalie (population 183) it’s closer to half. Laying fiber optic cable doesn’t make economic sense in sparsely populated areas. But the improving economics of wireless provides reason for hope.
The county has engaged SCS Technologies, a local Internet Service Provider, to cobble together a network using the small amount of fiber in the ground with a series of antennas mounted on cell towers, water towers, church steeples and anything else tall enough to see above the trees. SCS plans to offer 10 MBS (megabytes per second) service – about five times the speed most people are getting — for $35 a month. Halifax County is contributing $103,000 for phase one of the project.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has selected Halifax County as the proving ground for a service built upon the unused frequencies between television channels known as TV white spaces. One white-spaces tower could in theory cover a 10-mile radius with up to 400 MPS connections. The technology giant, which is partnering with Salem-based B2X Online to provide the local service, hopes to connect 1,000 homes in Halifax and neighboring Charlotte counties by early next year. Microsoft’s goal is to reach 2 million people across the country by 2022, beginning with 12 test sites like Halifax.
Bacon’s bottom line: It’s hard to imagine rural communities pulling themselves out of their economic doldrums if they lack the high-speed broadband connections to communicate with the rest of the business world. It is tempting for local boards of supervisors to consider subsidizing broadband service under the theory that, like electricity, telephone, water and sewer, broadband is indispensable for modern life. On the other hand, new technologies and business models are emerging that could render any existing rural-broadband solution obsolete.
Should the Halifax Board spend thousands of dollar subsidizing a broadband service that is marginally superior to copper-line connections when Microsoft might introduce a vastly superior service that could roll out county-wide within a couple of years? Tough question.