What is the latest update on the revised Roanoke Connect broadband initiative? Where and when will the connections begin? How long will the project take?
Roanoke Electric Co-op President and CEO Curtis Wynn provided answers to many burning questions about the initiative, covering everything from its rocky start to its re-envisioned path to success, during the Sept. 10 Broadband and Beyond webinar.
“As a co-op we stepped up to take on this project not because it was inexpensive or easy,” Wynn said. “Broadband is something we realize people need and are excited to get, and we’re working as hard as we can to get it to you.”
A summary of his update, presented in a question and answer format, is provided below:
Q: Why did the co-op halt its initial Roanoke Connect broadband deployment efforts last year?
A: As that effort got underway, roadblocks and delays prompted us to take a step back and revamp our strategy in consultation with a new engineering firm. The previous rollout was centered around fixed wireless “last-mile” technology as the method of delivering internet connections over the airwaves. The co-op’s revised plan now calls for “fiber-to-the-premises” technology, with fiber optic cables running directly to homes and businesses. This upgraded broadband network comes with many added benefits, including far faster connection speeds and higher bandwidth.
Q: After the previous effort was put on hold, what has been accomplished since then?
A: A lot has been taking place behind the scenes that will offer added value to our community.
– First, we selected a better, more robust technology.
– We have also been able to secure more grant funding, which is to offset the enormous cost of this endeavor. We have been awarded two already, a North Carolina Great Grant and a Community Development Block Grant. We have five additional grant applications in the hopper.
– With our current rollout, we are also incorporating a bundled package that will include voice services. Also included will be video services, such as SLING TV, an app-based TV service that lets you stream live tv and on-demand content over the internet.
Q: How expensive is this endeavor and who is going to pay for it?
A: This is an extremely expensive endeavor. It will cost at least $20,000 to $30,000 per mile to lay out the infrastructure over 2,000 square miles. Securing state and federal grants is critical to helping us fund this project. These grants require the co-op to put up matching dollars. As such, the co-op must leverage the money it spends on Roanoke Connect, so it’s not at the expense of providing electric service to our member-owners. The revised plan will also offer broadband service to more densely populated areas –outside of the co-op’s service territory — to help us offset the higher cost of fiber-to-premises.
Q: Why will the project take so long?
A: The goal is to bring the fiber network to each area as quickly as possible. A lot of preparation is needed before connecting homes and businesses within our communities. It is a lengthy process to map and place the fiber with many variables to consider along the way. It also takes a lot of time to develop a construction plan and work with local authorities on permitting and other requirements, which will be ongoing until completion.
Q: What does the actual construction entail?
A: Once an area is designated for fiber service, there is more design, engineering, and staking work that needs to be done. At each site, construction crews must mark the areas of existing wires, pipes, water lines, etc. This helps them when they are digging and dictates where the fiber will be placed. After that, they lay the fiber optic cables in the ground.
Q: Where was the first place designated for the construction to begin?
A: Construction began east of Jackson, North Carolina. It was selected first because of grant funding requirements. Our plan is to start connecting people in that area to internet service in November.
Q: How is the co-op determining where construction will take place next?
A: We are aiming to be as efficient and streamlined as possible during each buildout phase.
– First, our priority is grant-funded areas. The Federal Communications Commission uses maps that show areas where there is no broadband coverage. Those maps dictate where the co-op can apply for grant funding. Those grant-funded areas are what we will target first.
– Our dual deployment strategy is to also target areas with high density and demand. When people sign up, on register.roanokeconnect.com, the location shows up on a map that we use to determine the areas that will give us the best return on our investment; allowing us to eventually serve all of our member-owners.
– Thirdly, we will direct our efforts to sparsely populated remote areas, where there is a lot of dense forestry. We will not be able to run fiber optic cables in that terrain, so we are researching technologies to ensure they also have internet access.
Q: Why is it so important for people to continue to sign up now for internet service, if they have not already?
A: It helps us gauge interest and not spend money building a fiber network in areas where residents do not want it and where it cannot be financially sustained.