On the same night that King George County tested a system that lets residents virtually attend and make comments at Board of Supervisors meetings, county officials took steps to address another technology need that’s been a bane to rural areas.
That’s how to get broadband coverage to remote areas, so anyone who desires can use the internet to work from home, research school papers or even log into the King George website and watch Board of Supervisors meetings live. (The new website that allows such participation will be launched Sept. 21.)
King George has received a $30,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to work on solving its broadband shortages. It’s also partnering with the Center for Innovative Technology, a nonprofit corporation in Herndon that will help King George assess its needs and come up with a plan to provide for them.
The Community Development Block Grant and the broadband initiatives the CIT has in place pair up perfectly, said Caroline Stolle, CIT’s broadband program administrator.
“We were waiting for the right locality to come along,” she told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “Why not demonstrate how Virginia can spend its broadband money?”
The board agreed to the public–private partnership, although Supervisor Jim Howard had several questions about when the county will know how much infrastructure is needed and what it will cost.
Stolle said it will take about a year for the CIT, working with King George representatives, to put together a proposal request. She also hoped CIT could help King George acquire another grant to help with the expense of towers, fiber optics or whatever the infrastructure may be.
King George doesn’t have a good track record with broadband investment.
“We spent a tremendous amount of money and got nothing,” Howard said. “I’m praying that doesn’t happen this time.”
In 2006, King George seemed to be ahead of the technology curve when it became the second locality in the state to create a Wireless Authority to address its broadband needs. Two years later, the county signed a contract with Virginia Broadband of Culpeper and gave the business $740,000 in loans for equipment and installation.
Virginia Broadband promised to install equipment on 11 towers and extend coverage to 80 percent of the county within a year, but county officials said those plans never materialized. By summer 2011, the company had 20 customers and hadn’t paid back any of the money it borrowed, so King George pulled the plug.
The county later sued, and Virginia Broadband filed for bankruptcy in November 2012.
Since then, residents have appealed to the Wireless Authority, which consists of members of the Board of Supervisors, to help county residents get more connected. In making their pleas, which supervisors agreed with, residents said internet hookups have become as vital a utility as electricity or water and sewer.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said as much in March, when he called broadband access “an essential tool for localities to attract new businesses and thrive, as well as support the diverse needs of their schools and students.”
In 2013, frustrated residents formed a group called King George Connect to look into options on their own. They later presented their findings to the supervisors, who took no action.
Some of the group members, including founder Barbara Wagner, are working with Ryan Gandy, the county’s economic development on the new broadband grant.