For parent Shelley Mayhew, high-speed internet access in Pittsylvania County would improve her children’s learning.
“It’s very difficult,” Mayhew said of the lack of broadband where she lives in Climax. “I have two students in the school system. It is very difficult for them to complete their assigned online homework. “
She and her husband have tried to get high-speed internet access, but they can’t get a signal from the companies they’ve contacted, she said.
“We’ve tried a lot of vendors,” Mayhew said.
But the days of struggling to get connected to broadband will likely be over for county residents in the next few years. The Pittsylvania County Oversight Council has set a goal in 2019 as part of a strategic plan that at least 90% of county residents have broadband access by 2024.
Nearly $ 40 million in state grants announced last week will help pay for providing access to thousands of unserved residents in the county.
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Pittsylvania County and RiverStreet Networks received $ 39.5 million from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative for the $ 75 million fiber-to-the-home network that will provide access to 12,000 unserved locations over three years, county officials announced Tuesday afternoon.
The company is part of a larger, multi-locality project.
“This grant is an important step in fulfilling our commitment to provide reliable and affordable Internet access to unserved households in Pittsylvania County,” said Bob Warren, chair of the Pittsylvania County Oversight Board last week.
Pittsylvania County, Pittsylvania County Schools, and RiverStreet Networks signed a Memorandum of Understanding in September, jointly committing to take advantage of all possible funding opportunities to continue to expand fiber across the county. For the first phase of the project, the county and the school system committed a combined $ 16.5 million, to which RiverStreet Networks contributed $ 19.6 million. The remainder of the funding, $ 39.5 million, will come from the state grant.
The award is part of more than $ 722 million that has been allocated to 35 projects across the Commonwealth.
The $ 39.5 million award is part of a larger $ 87 million grant to RiverStreet Networks and the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, which includes several other rural Virginia counties. The Department of Housing and Community Development administers the program, which provides financial assistance to expand broadband service to unserved areas.
Climax resident Denise Walker has no reliable access to an Internet service provider other than using her cell phone hotspots.
“More recently, we got a jetpack from our cell phone provider, which still isn’t incredibly reliable but it’s our only option,” Walker told the Danville Register & Bee.
A jetpack is a product that allows connection to the Internet on multiple devices.
From March to May 2020 – and one day a week last school year – the child at Walker’s Elementary School had to leave home to attend remote meetings where homework was given and submitted.
“Much of her learning took place away from home, with loved ones who had a more reliable internet,” Walker said.
There were hot spots at some schools, but “it didn’t work out successfully” for Walkers due to scheduling conflicts with her and her husband’s jobs.
But the jetpack provided better access than before, she added.
“It has helped some,” Walker said. “We are in a much better place than we have been.”
The county and school division both contribute a portion of the funds received from the American Rescue Plan Act for the broadband project, with the county investing $ 6.5 million and the school system contributing $ 5.5 million, according to a county press release.
The remaining $ 4.5 million will be covered by a revenue sharing agreement with RiverStreet Networks. All money generated by the deal will be reinvested in additional broadband building efforts, according to the press release.
The county and RiverStreet are seeking funding opportunities and additional grants to expand the reach of the home-to-home fiber-optic network across the county.
In September, many people in the county wrote letters of support for the state grant, citing the urgent need for high-speed internet access.
“The citizens of Pittsylvania County have long suffered with little to no Internet service in many of our rural areas,” wrote Tony Lundy, president and CEO of Mobile Container Service Inc. in the county.
Lack of internet service also hurt Lundy’s business, he wrote.
“We have clients all over the United States and Canada,” he wrote to Tamarah Holmes, director of the VATI program broadband office at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “The lack of fast internet service makes the customer billing process slow and has significantly hampered our growth and the number of additional employees we could hire. The local cable and internet providers have customers at Westbridge Farm within 250 feet of my office, but refuse to help because of the River Ridge Road address. “
In another letter to Holmes, Title 1 Pittsylvania County Schools / Teaching Programs Supervisor Cedric J. Hairston wrote: This has become a major challenge over the past 18 months as many of our Students in the division had to rely on an adult to take them to a school “hot spot”, which was located 15 miles from their homes in order to receive or submit their lessons.
Kim Haymore, principal of Stony Mill Elementary School, wrote to Holmes that parents of multiple children should allocate hours for them to connect to the Internet because their Internet service would not support multiple users.
“This caused the students to miss several lessons a day,” Haymore wrote, referring to the virtual school that took place during the pandemic. “Parents should never have to decide which child can receive an education and which cannot. “
Additionally, where internet service is available in the county, it is generally slow, unreliable and extremely sensitive to weather conditions, she added.
“A simple downpour or strong wind can disrupt internet service for hours,” she wrote. “It prevents teachers and students from accessing teaching materials at home. “
But what about the citizens who may not be able to afford high-speed internet, those for whom the additional amenity would mean another bill?
Robert Taylor, director of business development for RiverStreet Networks, said the company has implemented a rebate program and is also enrolling in the Federal Communication Commission’s new affordable connectivity program.
The program will provide up to $ 30 in credit per month for internet service to eligible households, Taylor said. Other help will also be offered to customers, he said.
“Additionally, RSN knows that a major barrier for low-income households to obtain Internet service is the cost of single sign-on,” he added. “This is one of the reasons RSN covers the expense of connecting any location within 2,000 feet of their fiber optic route and is also working with the state to hopefully cover the costs. of “long loop” in a new program that they plan to launch in the near future. ”
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