Heather B. Hayes
Conventional wisdom has it that broadband Internet cannot be economically delivered to rural areas. Officials with Sunset Digital Communications, Inc. would beg to differ.
During the past eight years, the Duffield-based regional Internet service provider has built a 350-mile broadband network. It provides “last-mile” connections to homes and businesses throughout Lee and Wise counties.
The capital infrastructure costs of the LENOWISCO Rural Area Network — owned by the LENOWISCO Regional Planning District Commission and run by Sunset Digital — were financed in part through a Tobacco Commission grant.
Sunset Digital, which started in 2002, now has connected 900 residential and business customers. It provides high-speed broadband at prices that begin at less than $50 a month.
“We’ve managed to dispel some myths in the fiber industry,” says Paul Elswick, president and CEO of Sunset Digital. By relying on an active fiber-optic backbone, his company has been able to increase capacity by cutting and splicing fiber lines just like phone companies used to do with copper lines. Technicians can then run fiber connections directly to customers. “We’re now able to economically serve these customers at 10 houses per mile.”
The network already has proved to be an economic development asset for the area. It has attracted $50 million in corporate investments and 1,200 new jobs. Among the new corporate residents is OnePartner Advanced Technology and Applications Center, a commercial data center that provides disaster recovery services to other firms. The broadband network also allows Southwest Virginia residents to work from home and take distance-learning courses.
Sunset Digital and the LENOWISCO Regional Planning District Commission now are applying for federal stimulus funds to expand its “fiber to the home” connections to all 28,000 households in the region. “If we can get another 5,000 to 8,000 drops in this region through stimulus money, the revenue from that will enable us to be self-funding enough to hook everybody up in this area and expand,” Ellswick says.
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