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Phone cooperative rolls out 4G wireless service in county, region / July 23, 2014
Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative (BIT) is rolling out its new 4G LTE fixed wireless broadband services in Amelia, Brunswick, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Nottoway counties, in keeping with the timetable of the federal agency that awarded grant funding for Internet connectivity.

The cooperative’s new wireless high-speed Internet services, called “Bonfire,” is immediately available in some areas. Those who are located farthest away from cell towers may have to wait until early to mid-August, said BIT spokesperson Diana Peck.

As part of a March 2013 corrective action plan approved by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), BIT has until Sept. 30 to provide wireless broadband and high-speed internet access to underserved customers in the counties.

“We are in the process of building some additional towers,” Peck said, adding that some BIT customers who have had service under its old broadband program are already receiving Bonfire.

When completed, BIT’s new broadband service will be available throughout the five counties in rural areas not previously served or with prior limited access.

BIT, in a press release, stated, “Bonfire’s reliable and affordable services include residential broadband at 1.5 Mbps (download), 3.0 Mbps, or 4.0 Mbps, business services up to 10 Mbps, and 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) Internet with its fast speeds at affordable prices, with no data caps or overage fees, and personal, local customer service.”

BIT will also offer a portable “Wildfire” option that allows customers to connect wherever the Bonfire service is available.

Because of its membership in the NetAmerica Alliance, BIT says it “has access to the expertise of Alliance members, as well as shared 4G LTE core-hosting technology, operational tools, personnel, and marketing programs.”

BIT’S rollout is consistent with a push by Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors and Virginia’s Growth Alliance to expand cellular service in the area. At the supervisors’ July meeting, the members approved a resolution to support Virginia’s Growth Alliance, which is a consortium of communities working to promote economic development in Mecklenburg County.

One priority is the push to expand cellular, broadband, and WiFi services, and access to national cellular providers throughout Southside Virginia.

In 2010, BIT was one of 233 national projects approved for federal stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which appropriated $4.7 billion for the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) 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 federal grant, BIT had until Dec. 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.”

The company, based in the Bracey community on Lake Gaston, initially planned to roll out its fixed wireless broadband network in September 2012. But that date was pushed back due to challenges with WiMAX firmware and software optimization.

According to Tim Pfhol, the Grants Program Director for the Virginia Tobacco Commission, BIT had reported that it had “interference problems” from existing equipment installed by other telecommunication providers in the area.

By the end of 2012, BIT spent over $19 million out of the $23 million it received in federal stimulus funds and from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, but reported having no wholesale provider and only 97 actual customers (2 businesses, 92 residences, and 3 community institutions). Part of the technology process included switching over from the WiMAX platform to the more advanced LTE broadband technology.

For that to occur, BIT sought and received approval from the NOAA to partner with NetAmerica Alliance, LLC, an alliance of independent carriers who have joined forces to build-out 4G LTE service for members in their license coverage areas.

“BIT is delighted to have worked with Ericsson and the NetAmerica Alliance to deploy this new wireless network. Our Board of Directors and staff are proud to add Bonfire to our service offerings,” said Michele Taylor, Project Manager for the BTOP funded project. Since BIT no longer offers broadband services in ten of the 15 original service area counties, the corrective action plan also called for the company 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. The Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative, also known as BIT Communications, was founded in 1951. BIT provides local, long distance, and DSL broadband to approximately 3,200 subscribers in its traditional footprint in the south central region of Virginia. As of July 2014, BIT provides fixed high speed wireless broadband services. Peck said anyone interested in learning about BIT, its service area and offerings should contact the company at 434-636-2274 or 1-888-92-GOBIT.

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6 years & $19M later, all the original players are gone, the service area is cut to a 1/3 & this is a happy event?
It's not happy for those of us who were shut out of the project from Day 1 & lost our own wireless operations to the false promises of the original triangle of bone headed fool at BIT.
People with YEARS of experience were so below BIT, no emails or phone calls were returned when we offered our help & expertise...
I know of at least 3 independent wireless operations that were bankrupted by BIT in the first 3 years, while they struggled with interference [that could have been assisted by local EXPERIENCED Engineers & Operators!]...
Some of us won't soon forget how experience was trumped by the greedy wet dreams of M, M & Z... The original "triangle" who fled the scene before someone wound up in jail... Damn shame, light the BonFire, it's a funeral pyre!!!

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