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Wired Road receives $300,000 grant

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County board approves RFP for broadband internet services

By Shaina Stockton

INDEPENDENCE — The Wired Road Authority has reached a milestone in its plans to provide broadband services to businesses and homes throughout the Twin Counties. After receiving a $300,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission for this purpose, planning is currently underway by both counties and the Wired Road to put these funds to good use.

In an August meeting of the Grayson County Board of Supervisors, Col. John Fant, County Supervisor and member of the Wired Road Authority, announced the Wired Road’s receipt of the grant and explained that the money would be split evenly between Carroll County and Grayson County.

A drafted Request for Proposal (RFP) to seek out broadband services was then drafted for the Grayson board’s approval this month.

“As part of the Wired Road, our county has had the goal [to provide] 100 percent broadband access to our citizens,” Fant said in August. Another important goal, he added, was to expand internet services to emergency services departments that are spread throughout the county; particularly, along the western side of the county where internet services are now severely lacking.

Providing a wider range of broadband services is one of many projects the county has been hard at work on, and it has become a top priority for the county in their list of initiatives. Earlier this year, Sandie Terry of Rural Broadband Consulting, LLC, joined the effort in Grayson with an expansion plan for potential internet providers.

In August, Fant explained that they needed approval for a list of priorities concerning the expansion.

“We will need to work with emergency services and citizens, and gain approval from the communities concerning where to put these towers [later on in the process],” Fant said, noting that the county would not be approving actual locations; only where internet service was needed the most.

He further explained that they would be seeking out locations in these areas for building towers, which could range anywhere from 30 to 120 feet high, depending on the area’s needs.

Priority list

The priority list presented to the board last month was approved unanimously by the board members. The plan gave first priority to the Elk Creek and Wilson districts, which Fant explained in August would serve the Elk Creek Fire Department and Rescue Squad; and serve the areas of Elk Creek Valley and some of Comers Rock Road in Elk Creek.

In the RFP, Phase 1 will bring relief to 1,599 underserved homes, 34 percent with school-aged children; and two underserved public safety stations (Rugby and Troutdale).

Also noted in the RFP was a highlighted area, which represents an area where Skybest is applying for a USDA Community Connect Grant for a fiber build to 370 homes and the Rugby Rescue Squad’s station. “[This] would serve as the community center, which is required by the grant,” the RFP reads.

Phase 2 will serve 1,421 underserved homes — 37 percent with school-aged children — and two underserved public safety stations (Elk Creek Rescue Squad and Baywood Rescue Squad) in the Providence, Elk Creek and Old Town districts.

Phase 3 will cover areas of the Wilson and Elk Creek districts, providing internet to 1,154 more underserved homes — 34 percent with school aged children.

Phase 4 will move on to other areas of the Wilson District, to bring internet to 442 more underserved homes — 19 percent with school aged children — and the Mt. Rogers Rescue Squad building. In this area, Skybest is also applying for a USDA Community Connect Grant to reach 370 and the Rugby Rescue Station — which would serve as the community center that is required by the grant.

The final phase will cover Providence and Old Town Districts, reaching 551 underserved homes — 32 percent with school-aged children.

The RFP

At the board’s September meeting — held last Tuesday, Sept. 12, after being rescheduled from Sept. 8 due to the hurricane forecasts — Fant presented the RFP draft for the board’s approval.

Fant explained that the RFP will be used to solicit proposals to provide better internet capability to the county and its citizens, and read the RFP’s summary for the rest of the board’s consideration.

The summary states that the county will be publishing the RFP in coordination with the Wired Road; while retaining the authority to decide on the selection of a private internet service provider and the location of any new infrastructure for this project. The county is seeking “true broadband” services, which are based on the FCC’s current definition of 25M download and 3MB upload speeds.

“If the proposed network is based on wireless technology, any new vertical assets deployed in support of this initiative will be owned by the Wired Road Authority and the Authority will grant Grayson’s chosen partner exclusive access to deliver wireless Internet service to Grayson County for five years from those assets. There will be a renewable option to extend the agreement in five-year increments,” the RFP summary states.

The RFP further details the current limitations of high-speed internet services in Grayson County: “There is limited last mile fiber in Independence and cable exists only on the eastern county boundary around the city of Galax and limited service in Independence. Skyline Telephone out of North Carolina serves less than 100 homes on the southwest border with fiber. The majority of Grayson citizens have no fixed Internet access (60 percent of households) or DSL service only which does not meet the definition of broadband and has significant limitations due to distance constraints of the copper infrastructure.”

In a two-phased procurement plan, it further states that, after assessing the abilities of a potential vendor, a “Detailed Design Phase” would be funded in part by the county as county officials and the potential vendor mapped out a detailed plan to meet the county’s broadband goals. If the design accurately meets the county’s goals, the team would then negotiate a deployment plan.

The RFP also serves to explain the reasons behind the county’s passion for this project. “Many of Grayson’s school aged children do not have internet access at home which creates a severe disadvantage to the children of this county. Resolving the ‘homework gap’ is critical to the education of our young people. Much of the county must travel several miles to access medical care, and with the growing trend of telemedicine these citizens could access medical help directly from their homes if they were able to have reliable internet service. County officials have been approached by citizens of all ages and backgrounds about their severe need for better connectivity to help them live a healthier, happier, and more productive life.

Highlighting the Grayson County community and the natural resources it encompasses, the RFP further states that, “These unparalleled natural assets have proven to be a major driver for a budding sense of entrepreneurship toward the establishment of a thriving tourism industry in the county. Internet access is important to support tourism and the public’s safety while they enjoy all the natural beauty of Grayson County.”

Discussion

At the September meeting, Supervisor Tom Revels asked about the upcoming process.

“Should we be taking action on this officially now before it goes to the other entities for their input? Will it be coming back to us again in the future?” Revels asked.

County Administrator Bill Shepley explained that the RFP may be sent back to the board during the legal evaluation.

“We’re still a part of the Wired Road Authority. The county would be executing its RFP with control over where the towers go and who we go with. But it is in partnership with the Wired Road,” Fant said.

Fant recommended that the board have a motion to approve the release of the RFP, which would then be sent out for legal review for the county before moving on to the Wired Road.

“If the board members are okay with the RFP, we can move on to the next step,” said Fant.

The motion was made by Fant, seconded by Revels, and approved unanimously by the board.