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Closing the gap

South Boston News
The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation, the Tobacco Commission and Microsoft celebrate the connection of 100 homes to their “white space” rural Internet project. The event took place at the Washington-Coleman Communitty Center, where a telecommunications tower has been added to the network. / May 25, 2017
In both Halifax and Charlotte counties, the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation has now connected 100 rural households to the Internet, for free.

Why is this a big deal?

In the United States, nearly 34 million people have minimal or nonexistent Internet connections. And 24 million of these people live in rural or countryside areas. With an ever-changing and advancing economy, the Internet is crucial in developing skills and workforce abilities, especially for kids. This lack of access exacerbates the divide between wealthy and less-well off communities, between urban and rural, and is a nationwide problem.

This is the problem that the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC) was created to solve.

On Tuesday, at the Washington Coleman Community Center, the partnership of the MBC, Microsoft and the Virginia Tobacco Commission cut a ribbon to mark the rollout of the “Closing the Homework Gap” project in Halifax and Charlotte. Representatives from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s office and state Sen. Frank Ruff also attended.

In the U.S., nearly five million households with children have minimal or nonexistent access to the web. In Halifax and Charlotte alone, it is estimated that 50 percent of students lack Internet outside of school. For schools that increasingly put assignments and resources online, these students’ grades and achievements suffer.

The preliminary stages of the project are to create a massive “Homework Network” that will allow students to complete work, turn in papers and do research after school and on weekends. The installation gave these families free access to online “filtered educational content.” Unfiltered Internet access can be purchased from the internet provider B2X Online.

The MBC president and CEO, Tad Deriso, calls the three-way partnership “the most innovative and best example of private-public partnership” in the country. From its start just two years ago, the program now promises to offer affordable and free Internet to many that have previously been bypassed by the Internet. The head of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative, Paul Garnett, said that this is “the first project of its kind in the world.”

The Virginia Tobacco Commission has attempted to solve the larger Internet access problem in the area through the funding of the “eCorridor network,” a series of fiber-optic cables stretching along Highway 58. This gave high-speed broadband access to communities and businesses in the entire Southern Virginia region.

However, people living outside of the towns and cities that lie along the path of the fiver-optic network still have difficulty accessing the Internet. This project touts a possible solution: the unused TV “white space.”

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission completed the mandated switch from analog television broadcasting to an entirely digital format (the process began in 1996). The old analog system used a series of frequency buffers to minimize interference between TV channels. These unused low frequencies were dubbed “white space.”

With the switch to digital, the newer technology freed up the unused white space frequencies. Before the switch to digital was completed, companies like Microsoft and Google realized that this section of the TV spectrum could be modified to supply Internet access to consumers. Furthermore, the TV technology was better able to get through barriers like trees and buildings than traditional methods.

After years of lawsuits and complaints among the industry and government, that realization is becoming reality. A total of eighteen, 100-foot-tall monopole towers have been erected that supply broadband to 100 rural households across Halifax and Charlotte counties. By the end of 2017, MBC is set to connect a total of 1,000 households.

The white space, freed up by the FCC, is currently unlicensed and available for use. The only question was how to create and fund the infrastructure to make it available to consumers. MBC partnered with Microsoft — which already had a vested interest in the region’s computer skill development with their massive, billion-dollar data center in Boydton.

As for funding: MBC put up $250,000, matched by Microsoft. The Tobacco Commission doubled the amount with $500,000, for a total of a million dollars.

The antenna towers, router, and transmitters that are currently installed are covered by this group investment. The land used for tower construction is often publicly-owned, for easy access and installation — one tower is stationed behind the Washington Coleman Community Center, where the partners celebrated the ribbon cutting on Tuesday.

Able to be set up in a day, the towers contain routers, amplifiers and transmitters developed by the U.S. company Adaptrum that tap into the white space for Internet purposes.

For its part, Microsoft will be able to test the white space concept before it begins its own development in Taiwan, serving approximately the same area as Southside Virginia.

As for the future, the project stands to grow. “We already have this initial investment, now it’s time to put our foot on the gas,” said Garnett.

As of last week, the Tobacco Commission pledged a further $10 million to aid the project. The goal is to provide Internet access to students at 183 schools across Southside Virginia.

In addition to expanding the number of towers and antennas, the project also stands to be improved with GPS coordination and channel bonding devices to increase speed and range. More grant money and investment will be required. Further challenges include getting through the FCC’s regulatory uncertainty regarding the new technology, which plagued the engineers with design fixes.

(Editor's note: The News & Record initially reported the full cost of the project is $183 million. The story has been corrected to reflect that the project scope is to cover 183 schools.)

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