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Through a series of towers and equipment, nine out of 10 Carroll County schools, the Crossroads Institute in Galax and the Farmers’ Market in Hillsville are already connected to faster Internet speeds through the “Wired Road” regional broadband network, and the service will soon be provided to citizens.
The Regional Industrial Facilities Authority, which works on industrial projects in the area, is coordinating the project.
Broadband consists of fiber optic cables and a wireless network that allows customers to access high-speed Internet connections and phone and television services that are expected to be cheaper than what is currently offered. Fiber optic lines allow information to be transmitted through light faster than dial-up, cable or DSL Internet services.
St. Paul is the only Carroll school not included, said Keith Barker, assistant city manager of Galax and a member of the regional authority. Tower negotiations should lead to St. Paul students gaining faster Internet speeds within 30 days.
After roadblocks that have delayed the Wired Road project while citizens eagerly await access to speedy and cheaper Internet, phone and television service through broadband, Barker is hoping the network will be open in the next few weeks. At least, service could start in Carroll County, which was the first to build and go onto the towers.
Four probable Internet service providers are looking to climb aboard with the broadband project to offer faster and affordable Internet service. And RIFA is negotiating with a network operator that could be contracted with the project in two weeks.
“We’re a little delayed, and it’s taking longer than we thought,” said Barker. “But because a lot of areas don’t have this in place, we don’t have someone to turn to and say ‘how long is it going to take me to do this.’ We’ve been finding it out on our own.”
Even though the region is grateful for grants and donations it has received, the main challenge is finding funding for the $26 million cost spanning over five years. It has received a $200,000 Local Innovations Fund grant through the state Department of Housing and Community Development to help pay for construction and installation of the network; $30,000 from an anonymous donor; each locality chipped in $50,000; Carroll County Schools provided $186,000; and the Crossroads Institute handed over $200,000, which was received through funding from DHCD.
Details of a $325,000 grant from Appalachian Regional Commission are being ironed out. This grant would help pay for fiber installation at industrial parks in Carroll and Grayson counties and Galax. But it could be a few months before funds are available, Barker said.
Grants are being sought to get Twin County Regional Hospital on the broadband system.
Several months ago, the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority applied for a $6 million grant through the Virginia Tobacco Commission to create the fiber backbone, but the grant was tabled. Administrators thought they had been denied the grant but recently received a call back, asking them to meet with the Tobacco Commission about grant details.
RIFA members have been in discussion with the Tobacco Commission during the past month about payout options of either a buy-down loan or just a flat-out grant that may be awarded for the project.
Nothing will be known until mid-November.
Galax is moving forward with in-ground fiber designs, which should be completed by next month. A goal is to have the fiber in-ground in downtown Galax by the end of 2008, and downtown businesses soon being able to access benefits of broadband.
The fiber installation will coincide with the downtown revitalization and laying new water lines.
Also, Barker begun discussion with the Galax schools, in hopes of bringing broadband to students and faculty in the city.
In Grayson , County Administrator Bill Ring and Mike Maynard of the Wired Road Authority and Grayson Board of Supervisors have been in discussion with tower owners to get wireless Internet into the county.
On top of the funding challenges, it’s also the layout of the counties that may cause delays in the project.
“Grayson County and Carroll County are very mountainous, and that’s also some challenges we’ve had to look at in being able to provide service to those areas,” Barker said.
However, organizers remain positive.
“Just a little over a year ago, nobody talked much about broadband,” Barker said.
But since then, and despite not having a blueprint to follow and lack of funds, RIFA members have worked to see that service towers are being built, negotiated leases on towers and are moving forward ahead.
After making news in New Hampshire for the ambitious project, Galax and the Twin Counties even received visitors from eight towns in New Hampshire who want to know more.
“We’re creating a road map on how to get broadband up,” said Barker. “We’re treading new ground for other localities that haven’t done this yet.”