I was a Volunteer Citizen Member for six years of the now dissolved Broadband Technical Advisory Committee; several of our prior members had been on the committee since it was created over 11 years ago. The function of the committee with its several broadband industry experienced personnel was to advise the county government on the processes to obtain broadband coverage for the residents of Bedford County and to provide these residents with an avenue to voice their concerns.
I have now had the eighth person ask me why we were fired by the supervisors and why one supervisor in particular is blaming the Broadband Technical Advisory Committee for the massive delays and issues with the construction of the 12-tower site broadband initiative. Normally, it takes a lot for me to give a … well for me to care what some politician or politicians in this county think or say. But when people in authority try to blame an all-volunteer group for their own failings and act sanctimonious about their cover up, I can be convinced to speak. For those of you who remember (radio broadcaster) Paul Harvey, you will understand it when I say, “and now for the rest of the story.”
Once convinced by the Advisory Committee, after multiple failed attempts to use private money to solve the no or bad internet reception problem in Bedford County, all the county supervisors on the prior board of supervisors agreed to pony up public money to solve the issue. The county staff then advised the hiring of a “broadband consultant” who had worked with the county for several years. This consultant and the county staff proceeded to prepare a broadband plan that would supposedly provide 90 percent to 95 percent broadband access to the unserved and under-served areas by use of 12 tower locations.
The Commonwealth was overjoyed that a county would commit $4,000,000 to solve their rural broadband problems and agreed to provide Tobacco Commission and other state grant funds to help with this initiative — thank you Del. Kathy Byron. The consultant and county staff then sold their “Broadband Plan” to the state as a basis for receiving grant funding.
While the Broadband Technical Advisory Committee was extremely happy that something positive was being done, they cautioned the county consultant, county staff and the county supervisors that just these 12 tower locations would not provide the proffered “plan” coverage area of 90 percent to 95 percent. The Advisory Committee advised that up to 30 smaller additional repeater towers, “mini-pops” as we referred to them, would be required to penetrate heavy tree foliage coverage and dips in the terrain called “shadow” areas.
While lip service by county staff and the paid county consultant was given, no funding was set aside by the supervisors for construction of these repeater towers. Additionally for those who do not know it, the supervisors also service as the members of the Broadband Authority.
Upon obtaining both county and grant funding for the project, county staff and the county consultant advised the hiring of Blue Ridge Towers to build the “plan’s” towers and to lay the fiber optics needed to actually connect the towers to internet providers. The Broadband Plan and contracts called for the county to obtain and control the tower construction sites. Construction was to be completed in February 2020.
So we do not get lost in the weeds of all this detail, I ask the readers of this commentary, “Who is the authority that controls the decision to spend county taxpayers’ money, who prepared the broadband plan, who obtained the Virginia grant money and who hired the consultant and tower builder?” This reminds me of the old train wreck story: I can’t drive the train, I can’t blow the whistle or wave the lantern from the caboose, but let the train wreck and see who is blamed. Does anyone see where the all-volunteer Citizen Broadband Technical Advisory Committee controlled any of this process? And now let’s talk about the train wreck.
In school we did math calculations, so if your plan required eight major changes or major modifications that would be 8/11, which equals a failure percentage of 72 percent, not a good success rate or some could argue not a good plan. The tower site at Montvale had already been built and was not part of the construction project.
Please note, this construction was to be completed in February 2020, at the actual beginning of this pandemic. Would it not have been better had the county finished its planned project on time?
The 12 tower sites without the additional repeater towers will not come anywhere close to the 90 percent to 95 percent that the county consultant promised Supervisor Tommy Scott in an open public meeting of the board of supervisors. The people of Bedford County, especially the children of this county, have not been well served by the management of this “Broadband Plan.”
Specifically the “plan” failures are as follows:
• Dumpling Mountain site: County could not negotiate the expected lease; site had to be relocated to landfill.
• Big Island School site: Site had a tower built on it after moving it away from the school.
• Big Island Georgia Pacific site: The tower builder bought the land; the county tower was then built on the tower builder’s land. The tower builder obtained two leases worth about $3,600 a month or $1,296,000 over 30 years. The tower builder and the county is in dispute at this time as to the finder’s fee to transfer these contracts to the county.
• Moneta site: Tower was too close to electric lines and the fall radius not within code; site moved to private owned land in July 2020. Tower built, and Southside Electric granted fiber permit in October 2020.
• Boonsboro site: Supervisor Tommy Scott had tower location moved due to fall radius as it was too close to the public access.
• McGhee Road site: After months of negotiation with BRWA, a land swap was made with the county and the tower was built.
• Huddleston site: Tower built but county has not obtained permission from Southside Electric to run fiber optics to the site. County recently gave another contract, from CARES money, for about $1,300,000 to a contractor to lay fiber optic cables that may solve this issue.
• In August 2020, the county obtained a construction agreement with BRWA to build the Wheats Valley tower and hook up to the New London water tank owned by BRWA. Wheats Valley site, at direction of BRWA, was placed on what turned out to be an old refuse site from the construction of the reservoir. Construction required extensive design and changes by engineers Hurt and Profit to make the site stable enough to allow the tower to be built. It took until November 2020 for the BRWA to be satisfied with the tower builder’s installation of a microwave dish on the water tank in New London.
The county staff and the county’s paid consultant ran this project; it was said the consultant was paid over $100,000 to supervise the project. Many of the current county staff and the county consultant are not from here, as the phrase goes; the unpaid all-volunteer members of the previous Broadband Technical Advisory Committee do live here with their friends and neighbors.
A great many of the suggestions that were sent to the supervisors through their staff and their supervisor members assigned to the Broadband Technical Advisory Committee, in this past year, have fallen on deaf ears. Specifically, at New London, it was suggested to build on adjacent county land, not the BRWA water tank, so an income stream could be established for the Broadband Authority. Have the county, not the tower builder, negotiate the pole attachment agreement with Southside Electric, so that a five-month delay was not added to the Huddleston and Moneta sites. Obtain a Tower Management Contract with a group capable of putting other vendors on the towers to create the same income stream now being produced on the Big Island Georgia Pacific site owned by the tower builder. Additional communication vendors provide phone and data services like the 5G phone service available from the Big Island site. And recognize that towers are a stop-gap measure, though much better than no internet service at all, but not a real final solution.
Finally, as was advocated by the now dissolved Broadband Technical Advisory Committee, adopt a long-range “actual plan” to produce monthly income that could be used as seed money for Revenue Sharing Bonds to expand fiber optic and tower service to orphan subdivisions and businesses. A perfect example of this concept is the home owners on Tents Ferry Road, that face a heavy tree foliage issue, who would be able and willing to participate in cost sharing under a Revenue Sharing Model that could extend fiber optic line coverage. These 11 towers when fully built out could produce $6,000 per month in income that could add $72,000 a month or $864,000 per year to the Broadband Authority coffers, enough to do a lot of broadband expansion each year in Bedford County. All current towers are now built and are in the process of beginning to provide internet service by vendor Briscnet.
I would love for either the county staff or the supervisors to explain in public what exactly the Broadband Technical Advisory Committee did that caused this train wreck. And as far as the supervisors taking the broadband issues by the horns, I would suggest that they get better staff and consultants to put their faith in to run future broadband projects; it is after all why we elected them to these leadership roles.
The curious matter of why an elected body would dissolve a voice of the people who tried to help them does raise an issue. That issue being, is there something being hidden that would be detrimental if the public knew about it?