About $20 million has been set aside for broadband projects across Virginia, between federal programs and the state budget championed by Gov. Ralph Northam.
Montgomery County and Radford want a piece of that pie, but first the localities have to figure out which areas have the greatest need.
They are looking now to hire a consultant to develop a broadband plan for both jurisdictions, with bids due by April 25.
The study will find pockets that either have no internet service or not enough. It will examine available options for delivering connections and make recommendations for ways to partner with private providers to boost coverage.
Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission spearheading the effort, said the idea right now isn’t for the localities to build and operate their own fiber networks like the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority has done.
Instead, they would join forces with existing providers, like Comcast and Shentel, to submit applications for new state and federal grants. If selected, the private partner could help pay for some of the required local matching funds and then get to work on construction.
Customers in the area would see improved internet connections, while the locality would be spared the majority of the cost.
“We’re finally able to help the private providers obtain capital to do projects,” Byrd added.
Montgomery County received a $30,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to help pay for the development of the broadband plan.
Montgomery County spokeswoman Jennifer Harris and Radford City Manager David Ridpath said they are aware that gaps likely exist in the local internet map. The goal is for the study to better identify where exactly those are.
Byrd said the greatest struggle is outside of the region’s population centers, like Christiansburg and Blacksburg.
A survey by the Regional Commission in 2017 revealed 30 percent of Blacksburg residents reported insufficient internet speeds, 36 percent in Christiansburg and 48 percent in Montgomery County.
In rural parts of the county, many households are still on DSL connections with overloaded switchboards.
Providers there aren’t hooking up new customers, so Byrd said he has heard of clauses inserted into real estate contracts that transfer the old telephone number with the house so the new owner doesn’t get knocked offline.
Wherever the gaps are discovered, options abound to fix the issue, from fiber-optic networks to wireless antennas.
“I know that both local governments have been approached for projects, but they can’t really go spend public funds unless they know it’s the right project,” Byrd said. “So we’re going to figure out what the best method is to reach these pockets of need.”