The project to extend broadband internet access to under-served parts of the county is moving ahead in bits and pieces, according to the first quarterly update on the multi-pronged project.
One part of that effort, approved by county supervisors in November 2020, is already done—streamlining the approval process for building new telecommunications projects by no longer requiring pre-application meetings before applying to start projects that need a sign-off from the Board of Supervisors.
Additionally, $191,000 has already been moved in the county budget from a contingency fund to issue a request for proposals for connecting western county government properties, possibly laying down a backbone for later private connections. And the county administrator is expected to include in his capital budget proposal Feb. 10 that supervisors move funding up from fiscal years 2023 through 2025 to immediately help pay for that work once a vendor is found.
And CARES Act money has already been used to set up wi-fi hot spots at various locations in around the county, including public libraries and the Loudoun Valley Community Center.
Other initiatives are moving ahead, although county staff members provided few details during the Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 2 meeting, such as possible private sector partners to apply for Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant funding for last-mile broadband projects.
IT department Assistant Director Dave Friedrich said there are “no current partnerships that we’re in a position to discuss at this time.”
“There’s one or two of them that have a potential opportunity, and we hope to hear something in the very near term,” Friedrich said. He said those organizations have already been through that grant process with other localities.
Some broadband providers in Loudoun won Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grants last year in other areas, such as All Points Broadband which won funding alongside a coalition of four Northern Neck-area counties.
And, Friedrich indicated, in general smaller providers like All Points are so far the best candidates for those kinds of projects, with large communications franchisees expressing little interest in expanding their networks further than they have to.
Meanwhile, some parts of the county’s broadband plans are still getting off the ground.
One plan, to establish a uniform fee for telecommunications land development applications, will require a zoning ordinance amendment, a legislative process expected to begin in March.
County staff members have met about establishing a “Telecommunications Application Ombudsman” program but have not yet decided who could take on that responsibility. And county staff members are still discussing among themselves an idea to coordinate with power companies to extend broadband service.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) urged staff members to seek temporary, interim solutions while those longer-term fixes are in the works.
“All the issues we’re having right now, we’re having right now,” Randall said. “Telehealth, telelearning—all of it is right now, and it does provide an unequal disadvantage for people who can’t get this.”