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BIT to give up Halifax wireless rights to AT&T

SoVaNow.com / November 27, 2013
After years of delay and operational misfires, BIT (Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative) is seeking to give up its license to offer high-speed internet access in Halifax County to AT&T.

BIT, the successful bidder more than three years for swath of 700 MHz spectrum that was auctioned off by the federal government, will pull back to five counties where it will focus its wireless efforts. The counties are Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Lunenburg, Amelia and Nottoway.

Halifax, part of the original 15-county area where BIT proposed to offer coverage, will come under AT&T territory. It spans east from Halifax into Surry and Sussex counties and north to Prince Edward and Buckingham.

BIT has agreed to sell the licenses to AT&T as part of a corrective action plan approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and its grant administrator, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in March 2013. The NTIA oversaw $18.9 million federal stimulus grant to BIT in 2009 to construct the wireless network for the proposed service area. The Virginia Tobacco Commission pitched in another $4 million.

The sale does not become final until it is approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), according to Michele Taylor, wireless operations manager for BIT, based in Bracey. That process could take between 90 and 120 days.

If the transaction is approved BIT will have until September 30, 2014 to complete the work it began three and a half years ago to provide high-speed internet access to Mecklenburg and the other counties remaining in its coverage area.

Part of that process includes switching over from the current WiMAX technology platform to the more advanced LTE (Long Term Evolution) broadband technology. For that to occur, BIT sought and received approval from the NOAA to engage NetAmerica Alliance as its network construction and operations partner during the conversion process.

NetAmerica Alliance, LLC is an alliance of independent carriers who have joined forces to build-out 4G LTE service for members in their license coverage areas.

Earlier this year as BIT attempted to roll out its broadband service, the cooperative realized that WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology was incompatible with the LTE technology in place in the area.

In March, after the approval of their corrective action plan, Taylor said BIT officials decided to convert over to an LTE platform, thereby eliminating many of the interference problems that had bedeviled past attempts to get the system up and functioning.

“Switching to LTE won’t make all our interference problems go away,” said Taylor, “but it gives us more flexibility in dealing with other vendors.”

Once that decision was made, Taylor said BIT looked at its remaining grant funds — around $4 million in federal funds and another $3.9 million from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

“We did not have enough capital to retrofit the entire 15-county area with LTE,” said Taylor. “We decided to keep the market area that included our home territory of Mecklenburg County and sell the other two, the area to the west includes Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax and Prince Edward Counties and the one to the east made up of Greensville, Isle of Wight, Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties.”

Since BIT will not offer broadband services in ten of the 15 original service area counties, the corrective action plan also calls for BIT to terminate any existing tower leases in those areas. Taylor said the NTIA and NOAA made it clear that “tower lease expenses, backhaul expenses, and other related expenses associated with leasing and deploying towers that are outside our remaining coverage footprint” cannot be paid from grant funds.

People like Irauti Boyd in Halifax County are not happy with BIT’s business decision. Boyd, who lives five miles outside the town of Halifax, has been waiting for BIT to complete its work, hoping to finally receive high-speed internet service. “I am frustrated,” said Boyd. “I can’t get DSL or cable and am not certain when or if AT&T will offer high speed for my home.

“[AT&T] will have the same build out requirements as [BIT],” said Taylor, meaning AT&T will have to offer Internet access in those counties it acquires, including Halifax. The service requirements were part of the federal auction of the 700 megahertz spectrum, which was long used to transmit the UHF broadcast signal.

However, Taylor said she did not know the type of service AT&T plans to offer, such as mobile Internet or for fixed locations, but called the telecom giant “much more advanced and more quickly able” to roll out new services.

AT&T currently offers mobile Internet service in several of the counties it is acquiring, including Cumberland and parts of Charlotte. It recently received approval from Mecklenburg County to install a wireless tower on property owned by Wootton Brothers Greenhouse in western Mecklenburg, near the Charlotte County border, in an effort to boost its coverage area, according to an application field with Mecklenburg County’s planning office.

In 2010, BIT’s broadband project was one of 233 national projects approved for stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which appropriated $4.7 billion for the National Telecommunication and Information Administration to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. BIT received $18.9 million in stimulus funds and another $4 million from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.



Under the terms of the grant, BIT had until December 31, 2012 to install a broadband network to serve 15 counties in Southside Virginia. BIT’s grant submission said the network would provide “wireless broadband at speeds of up to 10 Mbps to as many as 100,000 households, 14,800 businesses and 800 community anchor institutions, and promote broadband adoption by discounting the cost of the equipment necessary to subscribe at home.”

BIT also proposed to “offer discounted rates to all critical community facilities and anchor institutions, including 73 fire departments and rescue squad facilities, and 47 police departments and sheriff offices and provide enhanced telemedicine capabilities to healthcare professionals.”



BIT initially planned to roll out its new fixed wireless broadband network in September 2012. That date was pushed back several times. Taylor acknowledges that along the way “unfortunate things happened” and there were many missteps. Some of them led to the ouster of BIT’s general manager, Mickey Sims, in April of this year. Sims was instrumental in securing the $18.9 million federal stimulus grant for BIT.

The NTIA suspended BIT’s the grant on January 4, 2013 “[d]ue to ongoing concerns relating to compliance with these grant award terms and conditions.” Additionally, BIT was not making adequate progress in meeting its milestones, in part due to technology issues, the agency deemed.

When the NTIA gave BIT a partial reprieve, it imposed several conditions on the company, including that BIT “secure a third-party partner to address technical, organizational, and financial concerns with its BTOP-funded project and to complete federal reporting requirements [and], hire a third-party project manager and replace existing WiMAX with a LTE solution.”

Moving forward Taylor says of BIT and its plan to bring broadband to five counties in Southside Virginia, “I know we are on the right track now.” Taylor also promised those customers who “hung in with us” – currently BIT has 76 residential customers and 5 commercials users according to its second quarter report filed with NOAA – that “they will be our first priority as far as service.”

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Comments

It would be nice for someone to push Centurylink into updating their infrastructure so that more can receive their DSL. I live on Union Church Rd, just 2 miles from Hwy 360, and it's not obtainable here. Go into Person County and you'll learn that 95% of their residents have access to high speed internet. Either DSL or cable.

Comments

so when is at&t going to deploy their broadband service in southhampton county?

Comments

Would love to see a follow-up article with AT&T about when they plan to have service for the other 10 counties who have been waiting patiently.

Comments

same here Mayard. It's been almost a year and no new news. I called ATT a couple weeks back and they didn't even know of anything about them taking over the bit project. Don't know what county u live in but when i asked the rep about Southampton county they said they knew f no plans for a build out

Comments

author is a real pro. Almost a year later and no updates


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