Switch flipped on publicly-financed broadband network in Roanoke area
Utility Service Contractors begin work in front of the City Market building in downtown Roanoke for installation of fiber-optic cable on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
BY YANN RANAIVO
The Roanoke Times
The publicly-financed fiber broadband network running through Roanoke, Salem and parts of Botetourt and Roanoke counties is officially active.
The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, along with its partners and supporters, announced the official lighting of the 47-mile network Tuesday during a pair of events at the Blue Ridge PBS station in Roanoke – the network's first customer.
Blue Ridge PBS plans to use the new broadband capabilities to evolve its programming.
Frank Smith, executive director of the broadband authority, said his group is in the process of connecting 10 customers from the government, education and business sectors. Blue Ridge PBS is using the network, but is undergoing some fine tuning that should have the station's fully connected within the next two weeks or so, he said.
Smith, who didn't reveal the private customers, said two of the other users will be Virginia Western Community College and the Western Virginia Water Authority. He said plans call for the signing up of about 60 small to large customers within the next 12 to 18 months.
"We have people calling us on a regular basis," Smith said.
Those who spoke Tuesday reiterated the need to improve connectivity in the Roanoke Valley to spur economic development.
Proponents of the network have in the past few years pointed to various reports on the Roanoke area's lower rankings with connectivity. They have also stressed that many employers today, whether they are already in the region or looking to expand here, need modern broadband infrastructure for their operations.
"What we're creating today is additional infrastructure for our community so it can move forward," said Salem City Manager and Broadband Authority board Chairman Kevin Boggess. "The network is just the first step in advancing and coordinating economic prospects for our region."
Sam English, CEO of Attention Point, which builds online tools for diagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said high-speed broadband is especially for technology companies like his. For example, he said on Monday he was on a video conference call with a person in London, a basic function that he said needed solid high-speed connectivity.
"We are global," said English, who also serves on a advisory committee to the broadband authority. "It's critical that we're able to do these kinds of things."
The governments of Roanoke, Salem and Botetourt and Roanoke counties created the broadband authority in 2013. The authority put out construction bids about a year ago and began searching for an executive director to give the entity and its work more direct oversight.
By August, crews began laying down conduit to house fiber and finished installing the 47 miles of cable earlier this month. The broadband board approved rates last month.
The entire project so far is backed by a $6.2 million bond from the Virginia Resources Authority that the cities of Roanoke and Salem each agreed to start repaying until the network generates sufficient business. Then about a month ago, Roanoke County announced a proposal to put $3.4 million into the project to expand the network by another 25 miles.
The 47 miles of cable run mostly through Roanoke and jut out into Salem and the two counties. Salem, however, possesses more existing fiber that will be open to broadband authority customers.
For Blue Ridge PBS president and CEO James Baum, the high-speed broadband opens the possibility of expanding the station's programming and moving control of its programs to cloud computing.
Baum said the station operates three channels, but could add a fourth one that would be dedicated to children's programming.
By moving programming to the cloud, the station would also be able to reduce expenses tied to the maintenance and replacement of control room equipment, Baum said. He said the move won't result in potential job cuts because staff management of the programming would still be needed.
Baum said, for instance, that there's a regular program filmed in Richmond that recaps the the state legislative session. Regional PBS stations, he said, need to have the show recorded and shipped to them before airing. With cloud access, the show could be downloaded within two minutes, he said.
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Wow, good for them! I took a six-hour round trip drive on 15 yesterday, and as I passed the many electric cooperatives that dot the road on that stretch, I thought to myself why on earth couldn't we as a community create a broadband cooperative? One where we "buy in" and are all members. That's how we wound up with electricity in such rural locations. It took the village, literally.
Yes, I know, money, money, money and where to even start with something this grandiose? I do not have the answer. But I wonder if there are grants to be had, and/or local folks out there with the time to seek out the knowledge by others who have possibly done this before. Has this been done before?
We pay a small mortgage each month for internet connectivity...
Thanks for starting the conversation.
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