Majority of Roanoke County has broadband, but it's slow life for those who don't

Rural parts of Roanoke County left out of broadband access

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. – It's 2019, and many of us would struggle to survive a day without the internet, but it's the reality people who live in one part of rural Roanoke County face every single day. Imagine it as the world of the technological haves and the have-nots.

They're seeing broadband announcements all around them but none for their ZIP code. It's because they live in a unique situation where everyone else around them already has it, and that fact actually makes their chances of getting connected worse.

Last week, Roanoke County leaders met with residents in the Catawba area of the county to discuss this problem. The residents are frustrated that they continue to be left out. They are served right now with spotty cellphone coverage and satellite internet that they say is virutally useless, and they want to feel equal.

The Roanoke Valley continues to blaze forward in its quest to be a tech leader, and Roanoke County has been right there for it. But some county residents, like Debby Layman, feel left behind.

"When we moved out here 17 years ago, we had dial-up. We didn't need it," Layman said. "Now we do. It's just like electricity. We need electricty, now we need broadband."

A short drive toward Catawba Mountain from Interstate 81 drops you into the Masons Cove and Catawba parts of the county. It's just 12 miles from downtown Roanoke as the crow flies, but living on the other side of the mountain feels more like living on the other side of the world.

"The other night, I sat down to do online banking. It took an hour and a half for just five bills. It's ridiculous," Layman said.

Gov. Ralph Northam has spent the summer touring the commonwealth touting new broadband initiatives in places like Botetourt, Bedford and Floyd counties. But Layman has noticed that Northam hasn't made one in Roanoke County.

Catawba Supervisor and Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors Martha Hooker said Northam hasn't made any announcements in Roanoke because 90% of the county already has broadband access.

"The majority of the county is covered with this service. What's remaining is the underserved or unserved, and they're still important, they still need it," Hooker said.

The counties being awarded state grants from the governor's office are generally rural and mostly disconnected, which makes them obvious candidates for the money. Roanoke County, however, has a primarily urban population with a steep drop-off of to rural places like Catawba. There is almost no middle ground between the two.

Internet service providers like Cox and Comcast go on their own to dense population centers because it's profitable and choose to skip more rural areas because they'd lose money putting the infrastructure in. That leaves people outside of the urban footprint to figure it out on their own.

"It might take miles of fiber to get just two or three customers, so delivering those services is just more expensive in those remote areas," Hooker said.

That puts Roanoke County in a peculiar position because it's tough to compete for grant money and outside funding to get broadband for the remaining 10% of people when other applicants have no connectivity at all and want to get started.

Roanoke County's other remote area, Bent Mountain, found a solution to this problem when a local man developed his own private, hyperlocal broadband service. It taps into the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which is a fiber backbone that a number of local jurisdictions have funded together. Roanoke County has put nearly $1.8 million into it so far and while that money wasn't directly invested into the Bent Mountain network Hooker points to that number to prove the county is working on it.

Layman isn't quite sure that system would work where she lives because once you get on top of Bent Mountain the land is pretty flat and makes for good antenna connectivity, which the servise releies on instead of hardlines to the house, as compared to her area, which sits in the bottom of a narrow, winding valley.

The county is under no obligation to get residents in the Catawba district access to broadband, but Hooker said it's unfair for those residents to not have the same connectivity as others in the county. Broadband is not considered a legal utility like water, electric or phone service, but Hooker sees it as one and said it's time for the remaining folks in the county to get connected.

Roanoke County leaders will meet on Aug. 27 to discuss this issue in a work session.