Even in digital hub Loudoun County, internet service lags

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The western areas of Loudoun County are plagued by slow and
unreliable internet service. Photo by Stephen Gosling

Ashburn is known as the center of the internet, and eastern Loudoun County is an international hub for data centers. But, “west of Leesburg, you roll back to the Eisenhower administration,” says the chairman of the county’s communications commission, Timothy Dennis.

Despite the eastern part of the county having “more fiber per square inch than anywhere in the universe,” slow and unreliable internet service plagues western Loudoun, says Dennis, who represents the Catoctin District on the commission and is president of wireless tower builder Invisible Towers. But that situation may soon change.

To increase broadband and cellular access in western Loudoun, the board of supervisors’ finance committee in July recommended a partnership with a company to install fiber-optic cable at county facilities. The plan would connect 60 facilities in western Loudoun, at a cost of about $16.1 million over 10 years. It would then be up to internet service providers to decide whether they want to connect customers from that fiber.

The recommendation was based on a study by consultant Columbia Telecommunications Corp. (CTC) after county supervisors approved a broadband strategic plan last year.

The cable project is a small step in what Dennis describes as the commission’s eight-year-long journey to remedy the problem, although some say that the plan won’t do enough to provide broadband access to the west. However, options are limited because internet providers profit more where their customer base is concentrated, not in rural areas.

The ideal, Dennis says, would be a “fiber/wireless hybrid solution. The [consultant’s] report validated that strategy. But the bottom line is it doesn’t work. It’s a losing proposition,” he says. CTC estimates it would cost about $130 million to run fiber all the way to individual residential properties on the more sparsely populated side of the county, nearly 10 times the cost of the current plan.

“The focus for me is education,” Dennis says. “My son’s friends were showing up to do their homework because they had no broadband at home.”

And while the county wants to preserve rural areas, “there’s got to be the ability to work remotely, for home-based businesses to upload and download,” he says.

“Wineries and breweries are the energy drivers for the rural west. But when you go to a winery, you’re struggling to use your credit card,” Dennis adds, because of the poor internet service.

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