Telephone companies have been promising for years to extend broadband networks to rural Americas businesses and neighborhoods if only federal regulators would cut them some breaks. Tired of waiting for industry lobbyists and policy-makers in Washington to reach a deal, four counties in southwestern Virginia are building their own broadband facilities by co-locating fiber-optic cables with water pipes.
The counties of Lee, Norton, Wise and Scott formed a nonprofit organization, Lenowisco Inc., to deploy an all-IP network, which spans approximately 14 miles so far. If the group reaches its goal, some of the last rural communities in the state to receive municipal water service will also be some of the earliest to get high-speed, low-cost Internet access.
The first business to benefit from the Lenowisco Rural Area Networkwhich is still in an experimental phaseis Tuck Engineering Inc., an aerial photography and surveying company in Big Stone Gap. Because of the economics of telephone network infrastructure, the fastest connection Tuck Engineering can get from the local telephone company is an ISDN line, which is inadequate for uploading and downloading data, said Bob Tuck, president and owner.
Tuck runs a high-tech business in a low-tech region and said he is not interested in joining the urban sprawl, even if it would mean access to better services. "This is my home. We started the business here in 1985," he said. "We have a phenomenal staff that we have trained, but theyre not the type of people who would want to get up and move to another location."
Until Tuck Engineering connected to the Lenowisco Rural Area Network in March, employees had to copy data onto CDs and DVDs and mail them to clients, Tuck said.
"This network basically levels the playing field between us and our competitors scattered around the country," Tuck said. "We have access to the same data at the same speeds."
The seed money for the rural network came primarily from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and the Virginia Coalfield Coalition. Like many small farming areas, Lenowisco communities felt consequences from the tobacco litigation brought by 46 states in the 1990s, and they are looking to the 1998 settlement funds to help boost their economies.
Status of Lenowisco Rural Area Network
8 miles of conduit co-located with water projects
6 miles of new conduit constructed
12 fiber-optic strands inserted into 13.36 miles of conduit
The idea started with Paul Elswick, president and executive chairman of CornerPost Software LLC, which sells content filtering tools for schools and businesses. Elswick, who grew up in Virginia, said he saw an opportunity for rural areas to leapfrog cities when it comes to broadband technology, rather than lag behind as they typically did with electricity and telephones.
"From an economic development point of view, we cant wait 25 years until its our turn," said Elswick. "The telcos have no real solution for us. As long as youre digging all these ditches, it would sure be neat if you could deploy fiber in the ditches when youre putting in the water systems."
Elswick, who serves as vice chairman of the VTICRC, pitched the idea of co-locating fiber optics with water pipes to the commission and won approval in 2001. The project was awarded $200,000 from the commission, $100,000 from the Virginia Coalfield Coalition, $50,000 from Big Stone Gap and a $450,000 loan, Elswick said. The group is trying to raise a second round of funding.
The Lenowisco Planning District Commission, which deploys sewer systems, installs the conduit with CornerPost, in Duffield, overseeing the project. The conduit was imported from Emtelle International Ltd., of Hawick, Scotland.
Elswick said the only roadblock the project faces now is political resistance from local telephone companies, which do not want competition from municipalities. Such political battles take place at the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which must approve the project before it can begin operating permanently.