Virginia Broadband has been providing high-speed fixed wireless Internet access to rural homes in the region and beyond since 2004, currently serving thousands of addresses from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Bay.
The Culpeper-based tech company, headquartered in the CBD along Lovers Lane, is watching and wants to be part of an extension of the county government’s potential fiber-to-the-home proliferation .
More than 4,000 addresses still unserved by the Internet, nearly a quarter of the way to the 21st century, are expected to come online.
“I used to think our competition was people like Comcast and Verizon, AT&T, now it’s always those guys, the more Culpeper County is in the business,” said Warren Manuel, CEO of Virginia Broadband, at a recent meeting.
Culpeper County’s $34 million fiber-to-the-home project, funded largely by state and federal grants, remains in contract negotiations nearly 20 months after county leaders launched a business relationship with All Leesburg-based Broadband points to build and operate the network. The internet will reach homes over existing power lines, under agreements with Dominion Power and Rappahannock Electric, with APB extending beyond power lines to individual addresses.
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White House officials in Culpeper in April for a broadband summit promised that every American home would be connected to reliable and affordable internet. The question is when?
This timeline remains uncertain as the digital divide widens.
It is clear from the summit hosted by Representative Abigail Spanberger that it will take a variety of technology solutions to serve every home with reliable and affordable internet.
This applies especially to residences located off the beaten path, where it is not economically feasible to extend fiberglass, and where fixed wireless, as provided by Virginia Broadband, might be a better option.
“With a cooperative attitude, there’s no reason we can’t get fiber to the end of the line and set up our broadcast point and get the last mile,” Manuel said.
Go to end of line
Whenever the Culpeper County Broadband Project kicks off, it will take 18 months to complete. The latest estimate was May or June for the start of construction.
The Board of Supervisors will receive a brief update at today’s APB meeting on working out the continuing contract details with the state, as nearly a quarter of households in the county remain without a good Internet.
Virginia Broadband was not invited to the congresswoman’s broadband summit, but company executives wanted to weigh in via follow-up correspondence and at the recent meeting with the Star-Exponent.
A marketing executive for the company, Ed Long of Culpeper, recently joined the company after 12 years in cell phone sales at Verizon.
“We think fiber will probably never be available to everyone anytime soon,” he said.
“We hope to work with these fiber ISPs and connect these customers down the line by providing fixed wireless connections to their fiber network. We want to work with these new guys to bring internet service to anyone who wants it.
Former school board president Michelle North has shared her story of not having the internet in her home with anyone who will listen. She told White House officials at the summit about having to rely on unreliable trouble spots.
“Unfortunately our household was excluded from the county project because Comcast says we are in their service area, but when I contact them to request cable service, they say they cannot provide it to our address. “, said North.
Per grant requirements, anyone listed as served on FCC maps, such as North is, cannot be served through the county’s project. These maps are known to be inaccurate and the federal government says it is working to update them by this fall, supposedly.
North had Virginia Broadband in her home about six months ago, and it was great, she said. The spring and fall foliage of their trees blocked the reception of their home.
“Two guys climbed onto our roof for several hours trying to get service, but to no avail,” North said. “Alas, we are in an internet dead zone.”
Manuel began his adult working life as a dairy farmer in Nokesville, by default, after his father died while still in high school. He canceled his plans to study at Virginia Tech, exchanged for on-the-job training.
When his brother returned from overseas with the U.S. Marines, Manuel served three years in the Marines, playing tuba with the band, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, before moving into electronics technology. agriculture.
From the beginning of the 1980s, he participated in the development of breeding software to create “the perfect cow” by artificial insemination. In the late 90s, Manuel worked on an Internet program for dairy farmers, similarly helping with optimal breeding criteria.
“We worked all over the world with this…my frustration was that I could do business in New Zealand, Peru, Ukraine, Korea better than I could in rural Virginia because they had a better internet,” said Manuel. “We decided to do something different.”
Visiting the Culpeper business center in the early 2000s and realizing it was served by fiber due to proximity to a nearby World Bank site, the CEO saw an opportunity to expand the wireless broadband in rural areas. Thus was born Virginia Broadband.
“We feed our systems with fiber, from there we take it wireless, you see that tower on Clark Mountain? We’re on that tower right there and Cargill Mill, has 122 different locations in 14 counties in central Virginia said Manuel.
The company has leased the tower space — $1,050 per tower per month — in Culpeper County from the start, he said.
“Now I find the county is underwriting $34 million to compete with us,” Manuel said, adding, “Give me a break on the rent on this tower because we’re going to have[equipment]installed. in many more places in rural areas to survive.
All Points Broadband will be a competitor.
“We are going to lose customers. There’s no doubt about it, but there’s a lot of potential,” Manuel said.
The future of the internet
Fiber may be the norm, but it’s no panacea, Long said, because it’s very expensive to install. Even the biggest ISPs are starting to realize this, he said, as well as the federal government.
“No single system can deliver service to everyone, so there has to be a patchwork of people working together to deliver the internet to everyone,” he said.
Virginia Broadband, which employs 14 people including tech support, offers various data plans that are enough for most customers to stream videos, games, work and school from home. The main obstacle for the company is electricity and topography in some places.
“If our broadcast points lose power, we go down,” Long said, noting that they have generators at key sites.
In the past, Manuel purchased access points for his personal use from Long when he was at Verizon. The CEO lives six miles from rural Richardsville, along the Rapidan River, in an area notoriously underserved by internet.
“We have customers in my area who can get Virginia Broadband; I’m not one of them,” Manuel said. “We’re going to put a tower there to serve those people.”
Building the business takes money, he added. Virginia Broadband received no subsidies to do so and managed to survive even in difficult times.
Manuel left the company in 2012 following a dispute with partners that ended in litigation and bankruptcy. He returned in 2018 to rebuild the business he started after internet speeds suffered and customers canceled.
Reflecting on the $32 million project the county is about to start and says it will be completed in a year and a half, Manuel was doubtful given inflation, supply chain issues and the shortage of workforce.
“So far we’ve been gritted, but if this kind of craziness continues, our installation costs will increase,” he added.
By working together, perhaps the promise of 100% coverage can be delivered, Long added.
“What we need to focus on for the future, fiber is coming, it’s here, it’s not going away, but it’s not going to be everywhere,” he said. “If we can get to where we can work with those providers, let us provide that service, but connect to your fiber so you can do that.”