Acting on its pledge to deliver high-speed internet access to underserved areas, the Orange County Broadband Authority rolled out a progressive 36-month plan last week that would deliver service capability to 75 percent of county residents.
The authority, which is comprised of the five county supervisors, agreed in principal to a three-phased plan that would cost approximately $10 million over the next three years.
“This is a fairly aggressive plan that at the end of those 36 months, would provide honest-to-God fiber broadband to residents and businesses in about 75 percent of the county,” broadband authority chair Jim White said. “That’s a big step from where we are today.”
Tuesday’s meeting was nearly four years to the day from the first authority meeting in July 2016.
“We set out on this venture several years ago with the goal of providing nearly universal availability of broadband for residents and businesses,” White said. “We knew that would be a challenging hurdle to handle and we’ve been working to chip away and make progress.”
The plan presented last week featured three phases designed to efficiently connect the most households in the most cost-effective manner.
To do so, the authority will build community laterals that would run down public and private roads to neighborhoods and homes. Those laterals would connect to the core system the authority has spent the last four years constructing, beginning with the backbone of the project that initially connected all the county schools. From there, the county expanded a network of high-speed fiber internet linking public buildings and public safety radio towers in a looped system with the Equinix data center in Culpeper which connects Orange County’s fiber network with the outside world.
The first phase, scheduled to begin this month, aims to construct 115 miles of fiber laterals to 3,745 households spread throughout the county.
The next phase, beginning approximately a year later, would add another 75 miles of neighborhood laterals to connect 1,320 more households.
The third phase discussed adds nearly 50 more miles of fiber laterals to reach another 846 homes.
A fourth phase, which would be funded by user fees from subscribers connected in the prior three phases, would reach the most remote county residents, requiring an additional 342 miles of lines to connect 2,877 homes.
The plan the authority discussed last week did not include a provision for those who live in areas currently served by high-speed internet, most notably the towns of Orange and Gordonsville and the community of Lake of the Woods.
Until this point, much of the authority’s work was mapping out the core network and establishing its infrastructure.
“This is where it starts to get exciting,” broadband authority vice-chair Mark Johnson said. “Citizens are going to start having something they haven’t had in these underserved areas which is broadband access.”
In developing the plan, Johnson said authority members and staff studied county population density and roads and looked for opportunities to connect the most households for the least amount of money.
“We’re not starting at one end of the county and building out,” he said. “We’re starting in various places in every district and in every part of the county. That’s true in the other phases as well.”
He likened the process to linking all the county’s homes to major roads.
“What if instead of building fiber, we were building roads? What if there were only five roads in the county—Route 33 on one end, Route 3 on the other, Route 20, Route 522 and Route 15. What if those were the only roads and we decided to build a bunch of other roads to hook up as many as possible?
“Luckily, we have roads, but it’s a good place to start and a good place to run fiber,” he continued. “We have to prioritize. Everyone wants to be first and no one wants to be last.”
The last phase that will be served in the plan presented last week represent the most rural and remote homes in the county.
The first phase would connect homes at an average of 32 per fiber mile. The next phase would connect an average of 18 per fiber mile and the third phase would be 17 per mile. The last phase would only connect about nine homes per fiber mile.
“We’re looking at a lot of miles of fiber and not a lot of houses,” Johnson said referencing the proposed final phase. “We’re not leaving those people hanging, but they’ll have to be patient.”
While the authority said much of the cost for the initial three connection phases would be borne by the county, participating homeowners would need to allow a utility easement and pay a service line connection cost. Because some residents live closer to the core network than others, the cost to connect individual homes could vary greatly, White noted. He estimated a $1.50 per foot cost to run connect a home to the nearest neighborhood lateral.
“If you’re 50 feet from the community service lateral, that would be a $75 one-time fee to connect. If you’re 1,000 feet, the cost grows significantly.”
To that end, authority members discussed the importance of economies of scale in connecting groups of homes.
“It would behoove many communities as they see these plans to have conversations with their neighbors and see where they stand,” White said. “When we begin building one of these community laterals and start hooking up customers, we want to connect all who are interested while we are there. To go back three or four months later would have a different impact and a different cost. If you live in an area with a dozen homes on the road, it’s in everyone’s interest to be informed and decide if they’re ready for service in the first volley.”
Authority member and District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame stressed the importance of public education about the project, its goals and the authority’s connection strategy.
“These principles all need to be stated to the public clearly and emphatically,” he said.
Authority members also stressed that the phased network connection plan is not finalized and some who find themselves in future phases may move up or down depending upon project engineering. They also noted that the project isn’t necessarily bound by the one phase-a-year proposed schedule.
“If for some reason, more money flows into this initiative, we can split, add or accelerate phases,” White said. “This is something we thought we could do from a construction, material and financial standpoint.”
“We don’t want to overpromise,” Johnson added. “This was a time frame we felt was realistic and we could pull off. Certainly, if we can speed it up we will.”
“It’s aggressive,” White reiterated. “It’s an enormous amount of work in a short frame, but what I’m hearing from people, this is what they’re expecting.”