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The need for speed

4G network in Southwest Virginia expected to spur business growth

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Print this page by Richard Foster

The Virginia Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance offers an interactive, online map showing the prevalence of various types of broadband Internet access in Virginia.

Check the box for wired broadband access (the type most people have in their homes) and virtually the entire state map erupts in purple, indicating coverage. But ask the site to display high-speed wireless 3G and 4G networks in Virginia, and it’s a much different story. There are large clusters of high-speed mobile data networks in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. Moving westward, smaller clusters pop up in Lynchburg and Roanoke, and then there’s nothing … except for a tiny little purple blob near Abingdon in far Southwest Virginia.

That’s where the Virginia Coalfield Coalition is busy deploying a 4G wireless network, believed to be among the first in the nation to target such a rural region.

The Virginia Coalfield Coalition is a joint economic development partnership of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission and the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission. The project encompasses seven counties in far Southwest Virginia (Buchanan, Dickinson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise) and is funded through a $7.5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. The commission funds economic development projects in former tobacco-dependent communities in Southern and Southwest Virginia.

The 3G and 4G wireless networks are the third and fourth generations of the digital data networks that carry voice and Internet data to mobile devices such as smartphones, allowing users to surf the Web, check email, text each other, and stream and download multimedia content at higher speeds.

4G wirelesss signals are broadcast by cell-phone towers fed by high-speed fiber optic cables, bringing data transfer speeds similar to that offered by wired home broadband connections.

Deploying widespread 4G mobile broadband access into rural Southwest Virginia is not only an important tool “to attract new IT companies and other companies to our region,” but it’s also an important quality of life issue needed to retain employees and young people, says Jim Baldwin, executive director of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

“One of our big challenges in Southwest Virginia is a lot of our best and brightest, they go off to college, and they’ll find work in more urban and suburban areas, which is not atypical of any rural community in the nation,” Baldwin says. “But having broadband infrastructure and adding this wireless 4G piece, I think it’s going to enhance our ability to keep our young people in the region.”

About 46 percent of all Americans are using smart phones, according to a study by Pew Internet & American Life project, and that number is expected to grow exponentially. And by 2015 mobile data use in the U.S. is expected to be more than 20 times higher than in 2010, according to a report delivered to the White House earlier this year by the Council of Economic Advisors.

“Mobility is big,” says Robert Picchi, the project manager for the Virginia Coalfield Coalition 4G project and president of North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Advisory Services Group, whose customers are mostly in Virginia. “I’ve heard forecasts that by 2015 or 2017 … as many as 30 percent of the population’s only interface with the Internet will be through mobile devices like iPads, Kindle Fires and smartphones. … It’s a pretty startling transformation.”

By the end of this year, the project will extend high-speed, fiber-optic data lines to 27 cell-phone towers in the region. Seventeen more towers with high-speed data networks will be built by 2014. Adding to the challenge of rolling out the 4G network in far Southwest Virginia are the mountainous terrain and trees, which Picchi calls “the twin enemies of wireless networks.”

Nonetheless, by 2014, the coalition aims to cover about 90 percent of the region with high-speed 4G wireless access, covering 95,000 homes and 2,600 businesses. It also will create a new high-speed wireless broadband network for home use, with data transfer speeds as high as 10 Mbps. At that speed, it would take about 16 minutes to download a 1 GB movie, similar to a home broadband connection.

The Virginia Coalfield Coalition network is open access, meaning that any mobile provider will be able to purchase access to the high-speed fiber and tower infrastructure, but Verizon will be the first local provider, according to local news reports. The network will be operated by the Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority and the Scott County Telephone Cooperative.

Deploying 4G is “critically important to economic development [in the coalfield coalition counties]. It’s a must,” Picchi says. “You can imagine the scenario, and it’s happened to us in the Southside where somebody will fly in on a private corporate jet, and they go to dial in their office, and they can’t get a cell signal. And they say, ‘I can’t locate my business here. I don’t have wireless coverage.’ ”

A study by the Springfield, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy released last November found that the wireless telecommunications industry plans to invest about $125 billion during the next five years in upgrading the nation’s existing mobile telecommunications network to 4G standards. Assuming an investment of $5 billion in infrastructure improvements in Virginia, the report states that Virginia stands to reap $73.2 million in tax revenues and could see the creation of as many as 13,000 new jobs.

Similar wireless broadband infrastructure improvement initiatives are under way in other Virginia localities. For example, the Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative is undertaking a $24 million initiative to build a high-speed wireless broadband network in Southside Virginia, serving 15 counties and the cities of Emporia and Franklin. More than $18 million of the project’s budget was provided through a federal grant.

“What we’re finding is that 3G and 4G are really taking off in big cities because people have a regular need to use it where they can’t get access to wi-fi or a wired connection,” says Tad Deriso, president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative. It’s assisting telecom providers with upgrading more than 800 miles of wireless broadband networks in Virginia.

But even though wireless providers built out 4G initially in the larger population centers such as Richmond and Northern Virginia, and the major interstates, Deriso says, the rest of the state eventually will receive significant high-speed 4G mobile access also. Verizon has been the most aggressive among the carriers, setting a goal to expand 4G throughout Virginia by the end of next year.

“When they started their 4G build-outs, the big areas were going to be first in line, but they can’t get to everything on day one,” Deriso says. “It’s just a timing issue.” 


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