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Movement stymied on countywide broadband

SoVaNow.com / June 03, 2019
Duane Murphy is tired of not having internet.

The Halifax County native, who moved away and has since returned to live in the Union Church area a few miles outside the Town of South Boston, says internet service in the county is unacceptable.

“It’s like a technological desert,” Murphy said.

Murphy has been monitoring the website of SCS Broadband, the wireless internet service provider (WISP) tasked with providing broadband internet to residents in out-of-the-way rural areas of Halifax County. He grew alarmed when he saw planned towers being removed from the company’s website, which offers tracking information on tower installations.

“I’ve been watching that progress since day one. There’s been towers falling off the list,” Murphy said.

Clay Stewart, chief operations officer of SCS Broadband, said that the main thing he’s learned in his 14 years as an internet service provider is that expectations for broadband connectivity always outstrips reality. This has certainly been the case in Halifax County, he said.

“We’re not deaf to it, but we hear it a lot,” Stewart said of the complaints.

Stewart, whose long IT career includes work for AT&T and other companies before striking out on his own with Nelson-based SCS Broadband, cautions that broadband internet takes many years to establish, especially in rural areas. But patience with the postponed rollout of service to remote areas of Halifax County is wearing thin.

“When did we need broadband? Yesterday,” said J.T. Davis, chair of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors’ broadband committee.

Tonight at the monthly meeting in Halifax, the Board of Supervisors is expected to ratify agreements tied to a $231,108 state grant, money that has been provided to Halifax County to install broadband network equipment on four tower locations in the county. The grant, by the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), covers four towers in Volens, Nathalie (in the Acorn area), Turbeville and Virgilina.

When the project is finished, a projected 3,305 homes and businesses will have access to broadband connectivity of up 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) — speeds that will enable high-bandwidth functions such as video streaming and enterprise-grade e-commerce. SCS Broadband, which is partnering with the county to build the network, will offer subscription plans to paying customers.

The VATI grant calls for the towers to be operational by June 3, 2020.

It is the second major grant award that Halifax County has secured for high-speed rural broadband. The first was a $206,206 Virginia Tobacco Commission grant, approved in March 2018. The tobacco grant was earmarked for Phase I of the rural broadband rollout in the northern part of Halifax County; Phase II, funded through VATI, will be used to fill in northern-area coverage gaps and expand the broadband network south into Turbeville and Virgilina.

However, even as county officials eye the beginning of work on Phase II, the first phase of the project has yet to get off the ground.

Initially, county officials envisioned the rollout of broadband service as early as mid-2018. In October 2017, the Board of Supervisors committed $100,000 in seed money to an implementation plan with SCS Broadband that envisioned high-speed service to nearly 3,000 homes and businesses in Nathalie, Vernon Hill, Meadville and Clover by the third quarter of 2018.

That original plan also called for the Cluster Springs and Alton areas to be added to the broadband network as more funding became availlable. But no service has been established thus far, owing to a combination of factors — some outside of SCS Broadband’s control, and others that are not, say county officials.

Davis noted that, among other issues, SCS Broadband is a small company that is working with numerous counties around Virginia to provide rural broadband. One of their other local government partners is Pittsylvania County, which started work earlier on its network project and has seen a faster rollout of service.

SCS Broadband is working with 13 counties in Virginia but has less than 30 employees, which has left the company understaffed, said Davis. “They’re spread out so thin, but they have hired some new people.”

To achieve the goal of extending broadband access throughout the county, the Board of Supervisors sought a partnership with a wireless provider because larger telecommunications firms with hard-wired networks — such as Comcast and CenturyLink — are generally reluctant to build out costly infrastructure to rural areas with few households. While Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative is building its own fiber optic network — installing the ultra-fast cable to link together its electrical substations in the county, with commercial and residential customers in the path of the network able to sign up for service— that effort will still exclude thousands of potential county customers, due to the prohibitive cost of extending fiber over long distances.

Because wireless is best suited for rural service — early on, satellite internet was deemed too unreliable by county officials — the choice was made early on to find a partner to build such a network. SCS Broadband, with a record of working effectively with Pittsylvania County, was chosen by the Board of Supervisors to carry out the project.

The number of applicants for the proposed public-private partnership was not a large one, however: only three companies sought out the project. “The pool was very shallow,” concedes Davis, who oversaw the selection process as broadband committee chair.

Since those early days, SCS Broadband has encountered a series of problems that has held back progress in installing wireless communications equipment at tower sites. Also, unlike Pittsylvania County, which was able to rely on a collection of publicly-owned towers, Halifax officials have encountered a greater need to lease private towers. Some of these towers are owned by cell phone companies, others by individuals landowners, and it has taken time to negotiate rights to these facilities.

One of the reasons Halifax residents have seen towers pop up on and drop off the SCS Broadband tracking website is that some towers turned to be overloaded with equipment and thus unsuited for the county network. Towers can also present unique challenges, such as the time SCS Broadband found an osprey nest on one tower (albeit one outside of the county). The work of installing equipment had to wait until the osprey chicks could fly away, said Stewart.

As planned, Phase I of the county network — the portion funded by the Tobacco Commission, and originally envisioned to come online by mid-2018 — will cover the northern half of Halifax, essentially everything north of Meadville, according to County Administrator Scott Simpson. (Planning for the system pre-dates Simpson’s arrival in Halifax County this year to serve as county administrator.) Phase I envisioned the activation of six broadband communications towers, but where the six towers will be located remains undecided.

Brookneal’s water tower, and tower sites at the Clover Fire Department, Meadville Elementary School, North Halifax Fire Department, Triangle Fire Department, and near Liberty have been shortlisted for Phase I of the network, but Simpson said this configuration has not been finalized.

The locations in Phase I were selected to have the highest impact per tower — that is, serving the most people at once — but site availability has been an issue. The delays have lasted so long that Phase I has begun to bleed into Phase II, which is being funded through this year’s VATI grant.

Phase II calls for activation of four more towers — in the Volens/Nathalie area, Turbeville and Virgilina — which would bring the county’s total number of tower sites to 10. Along with the tower sites, the plan further calls for the addition of eight “community poles,” essentially tall utility poles that will boost the signal in neighborhood clusters..

“Within a year from now I would anticipate all 10 towers and eight community data poles are online,” Simpson said.

Such assurances have been a source of frustration for Duane Murphy, who lives about five miles outside of South Boston and says his neighborhood — which is predominately African American — has no guarantee of receiving service even if the county is able to successfully execute its plans. Phases I and II will not provide comprehensive coverage of Halifax County, and further “last mile” steps will be needed — possibly in up to three more phases — to approach 100 percent coverage.

“I understand that [the project is in phases] but I don’t understand why they” — SCS Broadband — “stopped [updating] when they’d been so good about keeping us updated,” said Murphy.

Aside from complications in choosing tower sites and negotiating leases, SCS Broadband has run into a number of issues in building the county network. A basic, albeit unsolvable, problem has been the weather: Record rainfall and an abnormally high number of rainy days has frequently made tower climbing impossible.

“It was the worst year in the world to get towers loaded. You usually get 103 or 104 rain days in a year. It was 178 in 2018,” Stewart said.

Most of towers that SCS plans to utilize are steel lattice cellular facilities, roughly 190 feet tall. Tower climbing is a dangerous job, and on rainy days or days with high wind, and especially days with lightning, tower climbers cannot work. Since the majority of tower climbers are sub-contractors, they have to be scheduled in advance, and repeated delays can create cascade delays.

The company also has been done no favors by the federal government: trade tariffs on China have raised the cost of networking equipment, 95 percent of which is made by Chinese companies, said Stewart. “Since late October we have been in pain of tariffs, and that has raised the cost of towers by 10 percent,” he said.

Lastly, Stewart complained that regulatory approvals of county towers was held up by the federal government shutdown at the end of 2018, spilling over into the start of 2019. After the shutdown came to an end Jan. 25, it took months for the Federal Communications Commission to begin clearing out a backlog of communication tower requests.

“The FCC was a problem in 2018,” said Stewart.

Davis, who has made rural broadband a priority during his service on the Board of Supervisors, said he is as dissatisfied as anyone with the slow roll-out of a countywide network, but observed it was never going to be an easy task to provide service to every household in the county because of Halifax’s vast expanse and relativelty small population. “There is no question, the need, but it is not an easy task because the numbers are not there,” Davis said.

“I think that once it’s up and running, it will be fine. There have been a number of things that prevented it.”



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