Alan Morris is almost completely deaf. While he can often read lips and sometimes pick up a few words of deeper voices in person, he can’t hear at all on the phone. To help out, especially should an emergency occur when he’s alone, he and his wife invested in equipment that translates spoken words to written messages for him. There’s only one problem. The Morris’ don’t have internet access.
The equipment needs an internet connection to work.
The Wassum Valley couple shared their plight with officials at a countywide broadband community meeting Monday.
Other people told of how their lives are hampered by either the complete lack of broadband access or the lack of reliable access.
Lori Haga, who lives just off Rt. 16, would like to work from home in the future, but her current internet connection couldn’t handle the data transmission she’d need.
Some in college spoke of having to rely on their employers’ good graces to complete online college assignments. Many worried about the homework gap for public school students who lack internet access at home.
A mother who home schools her children said her family has considered moving closer to the TriCities to have better internet access.
Kirby noted that many rural communities are experiencing an outflow of population because of access-related issues.
Supervisor Lori Hester Deel, a former county economic development director, noted that broadband access is critical for attracting new business and industries. She spoke especially of data centers.
John McLean, Smyth County Economic Development Authority chairman, concurred. In a press release, he said, “Fast, affordable broadband internet access is essential for 21st century economic and community development in Smyth County. Broadband is needed to attract new and expanding employers, but just as importantly to support education, training and workforce development in the county and region. Expanding broadband availability to more remote areas of the county will help those employees and citizens stay connected to the information, transactions and communications they need.”
A Realtor noted that property values would go up if more homes had access. She said people won’t buy houses if there’s not internet access.
Chuck Kirby of the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) concurred. He said that properties with a fixed wireless connection see their value rise from 3 to 8 percent. The CIT is a nonprofit corporation that focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship and is assisting Smyth County with its community survey on broadband.
Monday evening’s meeting and the survey were among requirements for the county to be awarded an initial $15,000 broadband planning grant and future grants from Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development to expand broadband service.
The grant has tentatively been awarded contingent upon the county completing several activities. It has already met a requirement to establish a project management team that includes key stakeholders. The team is to help the county develop an action plan.
The data collected through the survey will be invaluable as the county tries to connect with service-providing partners and applies for additional grant funds.
Kirby, CIT’s vice president of broadband, said the county must dig deeper to determine the types of needs that exist in Smyth County. He urged people to complete the survey saying, it is “a chance to have your voice heard.”
The survey seeks information from citizens and businesses regarding broadband usage, current service, and needs. Information gathered from the survey will be used to create the county’s strategic broadband plan.
Kirby also said the survey may help the county identify coverage gaps that aren’t shown on maps.
The survey data, he said, “is the foundation” of the county’s needs assessment.
The survey, which is live and will run through Feb. 12, is available at https://www.commonwealthconnect.virginia.gov/form/locality-survey
While the online version is preferred, paper copies are immediately available at the Smyth County Administrator’s Office, 121 Bagley Circle Suite 100, Marion.
By the end of this week, copies are also expected to be available at:
Laurel Springs Farm Store Front, 118 E. Main Street, Marion;
The Farmhouse Market, 5244 Sugar Grove Hwy, Sugar Grove;
Valley Country Store, 1955 BF Buchanan Hwy, Saltville; and
Papa’s Café 826 E. Lee Hwy, Chilhowie.
Kirby promised that every comment left on the surveys would be read.
The survey is limited to one per household.
Many of those attending the Monday meeting were frustrated with the length of the project, which puts having 95 percent of the commonwealth served by 2028.
Kirby said the state, localities and their partners are trying to solve a math problem – how to extend fiber, which costs about $100,000 per linear mile, in lower population density communities. Many of those communities are also struggling with topography issues, such as heavy tree canopies, and mountainous geology.
One man voiced his frustration, saying it’s too long to wait. “We’re not attracting new businesses. We’re not attracting new residents. Smyth County is dying.”
Kirby said he sees the expansion of broadband as important now as rural electrification once was. He urged people to put their passion into making sure their friends and neighbors know about the survey and complete it.
Last week, Gov. Ralph S. Northam and several Democratic legislative leaders announced they will advance an 11-point Virginia 2020 Plan in this General Assembly session. Number 11 on that list is “bring broadband to more parts of Virginia.”
Anyone with questions about Smyth County’s survey may call Kendra at the County Administrator’s Office at 276-783-3298.