Broadband network raises expectations

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Print this page by James Heffernan

Page County expects to take a giant leap forward next year with the completion of a 39-mile fiber-optic network that will link the county’s anchor institutions and be used to attract business prospects.

The newly established Page County Broadband Authority has contracted with Edinburg-based Shenandoah Telecommunications Co. to build the $2.1 million network, which will serve the rural county’s “middle mile,” from Rileyville in the north to Shenandoah in the south. The project, to be completed by June next year, will be funded largely through a $1.6 million broadband infrastructure grant that the authority received last year through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Shentel has agreed to put up the difference.

“People tend to think of broadband in terms of people using it in their home, but for us the idea of looking at an overall broadband strategy was to provide something that would address the needs of our institutions as well as businesses and residents,” says Sara Levinson, the authority’s chief administrative officer. When completed, the network will pass within 500 feet of every county and town building, school, library and health-care facility.

That’s a huge step for a rugged area sandwiched between the George Washington National Forest and Skyline Drive, where high-speed Internet service can be spotty. “When you’re in town, you can get some access,” Levinson says, “But once you get out of town, the service isn’t very reliable, and it’s expensive.”

The arrival of broadband in Page could change the way many residents live and work. “Having good access to the Internet makes a big difference, from our commuters being able to work out of their homes to bringing viable businesses here,” Levinson says.
The network will support a new data center in the county that will provide administrative services for federal and state government programs. And it will allow vacationers — Page is home to Luray Caverns, historic inns, mountain cabins and campgrounds along the Shenandoah River — to stay connected while away from home.

For the county’s limited emergency medical staff, broadband also may help save a life. Because Page Memorial Hospital is not equipped for trauma patients, crews have about a 90-minute window to treat and transport heart-attack victims.

“Even if I am able to take readings from the heart monitor, there is no way to communicate that information to a medic who is not already on the scene,” says Stanley Town Manager Terry Petit, an EMS volunteer. Making the correct diagnosis quickly and getting the patient to a hospital in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville or Winchester dramatically increases their chances of survival, he says.

Although Shentel will be the network’s first and largest customer, the authority eventually will lease capacity to other Internet service providers. Proceeds will help fund the authority’s operations and the expansion of broadband in the county. “Right now we’re laying down the main highway,” Levinson says. “Long-term, our broadband plan focuses on the off-ramps.”

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