Watch now: Lack of high-speed internet access in Pittsylvania County limits learning for students, parents say | Govt. and Politics

Parents, students face challenges accessing high-speed internet in the county






For parent Shelley Mayhew, high-speed internet access in Pittsylvania County would enhance her children’s learning. 

“It’s very difficult,” Mayhew said of the lack of broadband where she lives in Climax. “I have two students in the school system. It’s very difficult for them to complete any online assignments that they’re given.”

She and her husband have attempted to obtain high-speed internet, but they cannot get a signal from the companies they’ve contacted, she said. 

“We have tried many providers,” Mayhew said. 

But the days of struggling to get hooked up to broadband will likely be over for county residents in the next few years. The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors set a goal in 2019 as part of a strategic plan that at least 90% of county residents have broadband access by 2024.

Nearly $40 million in state grant money announced last week will help pay to deliver access to thousands of unserved residents in the county.

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Shelley Mayhew

Climax resident Shelley Mayhew, at her office Friday, said access to high-speed internet in Pittsylvania County would enhance her children’s learning. Lack of reliable access makes it hard for them to complete online school assignments, she said.   




Pittsylvania County and RiverStreet Networks have been awarded $39.5 million from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative for the $75 million fiber-to-the home network that will bring access to 12,000 unserved locations in three years, county officials announced Tuesday afternoon.

The endeavor is part of a larger, multi-locality project.

“This grant award is a major milestone in meeting our commitment to bring reliable and affordable internet access to unserved households in Pittsylvania County,” Bob Warren, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, said last week.

Pittsylvania County, Pittsylvania County Schools and RiverStreet Networks signed a memorandum of understanding in September, jointly committing to leverage all possible funding opportunities to continue expanding fiber across the county. For the first phase of the project, the county and the school system committed a combined $16.5 million to the effort, which RiverStreet Networks matched with $19.6 million. The remainder of the funding, $39.5 million, will come from the state grant.

The award is part of more than $722 million that was allocated to 35 projects across the commonwealth.

The $39.5 million award is part of a larger, $87 million grant for RiverStreet Networks and the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, which includes several other rural Virginia counties. The Department of Housing and Community Development administers the program, which provides financial assistance to extend broadband service to unserved areas.

Climax resident Denise Walker does not have reliable access to an internet provider other than using her cellphone hot spots. 

“Most recently, we have secured a jetpack from our cellphone provider, which is still not incredibly reliable but it is our only option,” Walker told the Danville Register & Bee. 

A jetpack is a product that allows connection to the internet on more than one device. 

From March to May 2020 — and one day every week last school year — Walker’s elementary-school child had to leave home to attend remote meetings where assignments were given and submitted.  

“A lot of her learning took place outside of her home at her relatives’ who had more reliable internet,” Walker said. 

There were hot spots at certain schools, but “that did not work successfully” for the Walkers due to scheduling conflicts with her and her husband’s jobs. 

But the jetpack has provided better access than before, she added. 

“That has helped some,” Walker said. “We are in a much better place than we have been.”



County

Pittsylvania County School Board Chairman Sam Burton, left, RiverStreet Networks Business Development Manager Robert Taylor and Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Warren hold a news conference Dec. 14 in Chatham announcing nearly $40 million in state grant money to help pay for a high-speed internet access project in the county.




Funding

The county and the school division are both contributing part of the funds received from the American Rescue Plan Act to the broadband project, with the county investing $6.5 million and the school system contributing $5.5 million, according to a news release from the county.

The remaining $4.5 million will be covered through a revenue sharing agreement with RiverStreet Networks. All of the money generated through the agreement will be re-invested into additional broadband construction efforts, according to the news release.

The county and RiverStreet are pursuing additional funding opportunities and grants to expand the scope of the fiber-to-the-home network across the county.

In September, numerous individuals in the county wrote letters of support for the state grant, citing dire need for high-speed internet access. 

“The citizens of Pittsylvania County have long suffered with little to no internet service in many of our rural areas,” wrote Tony Lundy, president and CEO of Mobile Container Service Inc., in the county. 

Lack of internet service has also adversely affected Lundy’s business, he wrote. 

“We have customers all over the U.S. and Canada,” he wrote to Tamarah Holmes, director of the Office of Broadband under the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development VATI Program. “The lack of a fast internet service makes invoicing customers a slow process and has greatly hampered our growth and the amount of additional employees that we could hire. The local cable and internet providers have customers in Westbridge Farm within 250 feet of my office, but refuse to give us service because of the River Ridge Road address.”

In another letter to Holmes, Pittsylvania County Schools supervisor of Title 1/instructional programs Cedric J. Hairston wrote, “Pittsylvania is the largest land-area county in our state; therefore, many of our citizens in these identified areas suffer with little to no internet service. This became a major challenge over the past 18 months as many of our students in the division had to rely on an adult to take them to a school’s ‘hot spot,’ which was located as far as 15 miles from their home in order to receive or submit their lessons.”

Kim Haymore, principal at Stony Mill Elementary School, wrote to Holmes that parents with multiple children had to assign times for them to connect to the internet because their internet service would not support multiple users. 

“This resulted in students missing several instructional lessons per day,” Haymore wrote, referring to virtual school that took place during the pandemic. “Parents should never be faced with deciding which child can receive instruction and which child cannot.”

Also, where internet service is available in county, it’s usually slow, unreliable and extremely sensitive to weather, she added. 

“A simple rain shower or strong wind can take out internet service for hours,” she wrote. “This limits both teachers and students from accessing instructional materials while at home.”

The price

But what about citizens who may not be able to afford high-speed internet, those for whom the added amenity would mean another bill? 

Robert Taylor, business development manager for RiverStreet Networks, said the company has a discount program in place and is also signing up for the new Federal Communication Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program. 

The program will supply up to a $30 credit per month for internet service for eligible households, Taylor said. Other help will be offered to customers, as well, he said.  

“Additionally, RSN knows that a major hurdle for low income households to get internet service is the one-time connection cost,” he added. “This is one reason why RSN covers the expense to connect any location within 2,000 feet of their fiber run and is also working with the state to hopefully cover ‘long loop’ fees in a new program that they are thinking about launching in the near future.” 

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