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: 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 that has scalability as we grow our broadband network.
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. The grants are designed to give people with no internet service priority. It would be ideal for us to build out an entire region first and then move on to the next one, but the grants limit our capabilities. We will go back to those non-grant areas to connect interested subscribers after the grant construction is complete.
With our current rollout, we have incorporated 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 high cost of building a broadband network.
Q: Why will the project take so long?
A: The goal is to bring broadband internet 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 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. It is expected to take 5-6 years to complete our broadband network build out because of the vast area we plan to cover.
Keeping in mind that we’re a small non-profit electric cooperative with 14,000 members, our progress is slower than the big private broadband companies. We want to keep Roanoke Electric Cooperative and Roanoke Connect rates affordable for our members and subscribers while providing the best service possible.
Q: What does the actual construction entail?
A: Once an area is designated for 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 dictates where they dig and where equipment will be placed.
Inevitably we run into roadblocks and delays. They can be attributed to weather, construction coordination, regulations, contractual obligations, permitting from local authorities, equipment availability, and other unforeseen circumstances. We realize delays can be disappointing for the community, as it is for us, but we know it is worth the wait to deliver our member-owners and residents access to a broadband network that provides them reliable high speed internet.
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. Please refer to the build out map on our website for future construction. If you don’t see your area listed, we encourage you to sign up at Register.RoanokeConnect.com so we know you have interest.
Q: How is the co-op determining where construction will take place next?
A: We aim 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.
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 underground cables in that terrain, so we are researching technologies to ensure they also have internet access.
Due to the pandemic there is a significant focus on the unserved and underserved to have access to reliable internet service. The federal and state government are working with the broadband industry to make this achievable as quickly as possible. Please keep in mind that the decisions made by various governing bodies could affect our build out timeline. We will regularly update our website, The Call, social media, and send emails to keep you informed.
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 strategically plan the buildout of our broadband network. By signing up you will receive email updates about the timeline and will be notified when we are coming to your area.