By Laura McFarland, News Editor,  Richmond Times-Dispatch

POWHATAN – Getting more of Powhatan County connected to reliable, affordable wireless broadband connections might be closer than many people think.

The county recently announced a new private partnership with SCS Broadband, an Internet provider that is going to be designing a wireless broadband system for Powhatan.

Lon Whelchel, CEO of SCS Broadband, spoke to the Broadband Citizen Advisory Committee at its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 21 to start answering some preliminary questions about what building a system involves and how soon residents will start benefiting from it.

While having full countywide coverage will take time to achieve, Whelchel said the first residents taking advantage of the newly designed system and using existing towers in the county could be connected in early 2017.

With a typical system design taking about 60 days, he said he hopes he will have better answers soon for when residents in different parts of the county could potentially see themselves getting coverage.

“It is not an easy rule of thumb. I am trying to be honest about that. Not everybody is going to get coverage from day one. And it may require a build here and then another build later to backfill the gaps,” he said.

Whelchel will present the proposed design of a wireless broadband system to the committee at its meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29 in the Huguenot Public Safety Building, 1959 Urbine Road. The presentation will give an overview of how to get coverage to the county. This is a public meeting, but there is no time set aside for public comment or questions.

Creating a design

One point that county administrator Pat Weiler stressed repeatedly when the partnership with SCS Broadband was announced was that the company would be creating a design, not doing another study.

The difference is in the results. When the company is finished, the county won’t only know what areas are underserved but have definite proposed plans for what and how long it will take to get wireless broadband to the various aspects of the county.

Getting fiber connections to homes would be the ideal scenario, but it is usually cost prohibitive in a lot of areas, including rural areas like Powhatan that have residents who are so spread out, Whelchel said.

Studies and surveys have already been done that showed the markets in need in Powahtan and the vertical assets in the county, which includes examples such as both county and commercial towers, he said. One of the steps in the design phase will be using drones flying around existing towers to evaluate line of sight and do frequency testing.

“The networks are fed by fiber at some point. But we actually connect a lot of towers with wireless connectivity. We can deliver 1 GB of bandwidth if necessary from point to point,” he said.

SCS employees will also look at different aspects such as what fiber connections already exist, how they can be maximized and what partnerships can be created with citizens and other companies to reach the most people possible.

Whelchel showed several examples of residences or businesses in rural areas that had small relays perched unobtrusively on silos, homes, barns, and other structures. In some cases, an agreement is worked out to provide service there and the people with the relay on their properties agree to also let their neighbors use the feed.

Another consideration is topography, he said. Even with a tower in an area, many factors can be a hindrance to getting a signal to customers, such as hills or trees. Still, he cautioned that once everything is in place, the only way to really find out if a home will get coverage is when an SCS truck comes out to test if conditions are right for the service to work.

“If it is in the winter, we try to take that into account so we don’t get a phone call in the spring when the leaves come out,” he said.

They sometimes have agreements with businesses such as electric companies to use their towers as sites for relays, he said. Those companies also get a return because they usually are looking for ways to get Internet connectivity to their substations.

The key to the design is evaluating not only what the county’s needs are today and what it will take to achieve the different phases of filling that need but also looking at what the future needs will be to make sure they match up.

“We overlay that with a plan that marries up to starting literally today and then there may be assets that need to be developed somewhere in the future to finish out the full build,” he said.

For instance, video streaming is changing the needs for the internet user dramatically and that is evident in SCS Broadband’s network, Whelchel said. That trend is only going to grow, so it has to be a huge consideration in designing the system, he added.

“It is real important from the education side but also when you are watching Netflix, HULU or maybe replacing your direct TV or satellite and getting all of your entertainment over the Internet,” he said.

Another consideration in the plan will be the new emergency radio system and new towers that have already been approved as part of the county’s capital improvement program (CIP), Weiler said.

Once a radio consultant is chosen, it will work with SCS to discuss positioning towers in the county and seeing if towers that improve coverage of the radio system for emergency services might also help in expanding the broadband into more areas. However, she pointed out that “there is a much larger area where people don’t have internet than where there is no radio.”

Several committee members were hoping for an idea of a timeline of how long it will take to connect not just the early customers served but the ones in less dense, more remote areas. Whelchel said that is what the design is about. In the end, the county will have not just a comprehensive map of coverage in the county but what it is going to take to get service to all of the areas without good service, he said.

“When I look at the population density in the county you have now, I can’t think of any market that would not be worthwhile for coverage,” he said.

Getting service to everyone

Whelchel pointed out that as the internet provider gets its contact information out to Powhatan residents and they start signing up to show they have interest in becoming customers, that could have a potential impact in how implementing the design moves forward. For instance, one tower may be the first one the county and SCS choose to focus on, but through interest from potential customers, they may realize working on another tower might serve more people faster.

Throughout the meeting, as committee members discussed various topics with Whelchel, the question of how areas will be prioritized to get coverage first came up several times.

Jamie Duncan, one of the committee members, was one of the ones who made the point that as a business, SCS Broadband needs to make money to keep providing services. It is more profitable for a company to “do six months worth of work and get 500 homes better broadband versus six months worth of work to get 50 homes better broadband,” he said.

Pete Sisti, another committee member, said he understood that is true and that people will want SCS Broadband to do well in the county, but there are too many families struggling with inadequate or no internet access at all.

He said it needs to be the committee’s job to represent those people – the ones who can work from home or students who can’t do homework because of their lack of wireless broadband. He said he was shocked when he learned that there were people, including students, who were sitting in their cars at night outside of the library, county building or one of the schools and working on their laptops to get things done because they don’t have any options at home.

“What is the best bang for the business is the highest density. That just kind of feeds on itself. But then people out in the far end of the county where there is no density, they don’t have anything. They don’t have DSL, they don’t have cable,” he said. “What I would like to avoid is the same thing happening with wireless and them being left out again.”

Other topics

Throughout the meeting, committee members and Whelchel touched on a wide range of additional topics. Some of the ones that were discussed were:

* Zoning for any towers or relays installed.

Weiler said that the county will be looking at its zoning policy to make sure there is nothing in place that will be a hindrance to the different ways it may take to get wireless broadband to residents. This will include looking at related zoning topics such as towers and relays on different kinds of structure.

She pointed out that factored into the timeline of getting new towers in place was the fact that the permitting process takes 60 days. The county isn’t going to cut corners to make sure any new builds or additions are done right, but it also doesn’t want to stand in the way of people getting access to wireless broadband as quickly as they can, she said.

* Addressing speed and access issues for customers.

Duncan brought up the point that cable customers who are accessing the same sources as their neighbors often experience worse coverage as the population using it increases.

Whelchel said that is factored into the design. The company limits the number of people that can be getting signal from a tower based on the equipment.

“We monitor our network 24-7, and we can see when we have an issue. We know when those loads are high. We see it,” he said. “If there is a growth that we didn’t anticipate and we see an issue, we can back build or bring up the speeds in the area. It depends on what it is.”

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.