While it might seem like everyone has access to Facebook and email at their home, some locations in Virginia are still in the dark.
“It’s something for those in urban areas, you can take it for granted,” said Nathan Frost, director of new technology at Dominion Energy. “It’s different from electric service where you’re guaranteed [internet access]. You’re seeing the absence of broadband in these communities and in terms of economic development it is absolutely critical.”
Frost is part of a team at Dominion Energy that is starting a new program to bring broadband to underserved communities across the state.
Broadband is a general term for connections, through mediums such as fiber-optic, that transmits large amount of data, according to Commonwealth Connect.
Frost said communities in Hampton Roads for the most part might not notice the discrepancy but as you get farther out into lower density areas, broadband becomes less available.
Frost said the issue arises because broadband isn’t regulated, so those in more rural locations don’t have service providers coming out to their area. Some 54 percent of rural Virginians don’t have access to internet, Frost said, and with the internet becoming a more integral part of everyday life, this becomes a problem for those without access.
“The challenge is, if you think about how we use the internet, the data intensity and volume of data is growing everyday,” he said. “A decade ago, Netflix wasn’t a big deal, so you’re starting to see the basic need and amount of broadband is increasing.”
With broadband, Frost said there is an “internet node” or focal point which then runs the extension through the areas to what is known as the middle mile, which is the segment of the network that links the core to a local network plant. But in most cases, this only reaches a certain point and from that middle mile a company needs to pick up the service to bring it to the home.
Frost described the issues with broadband like looking at the hub of a tire. There are densely populated areas in the center and as those populations spread wider, there is less coverage.
“Generally, folks in the industry call it a math problem in that there is not enough population density in these communities,” he said. “There’s not enough folks out there to support the business bringing it to the home.”
For businesses, bringing broadband to rural areas can mean investing a lot of money in stringing fiber and then taking it to communities where residents might not even be able to afford the service.
Dominion Energy is starting a Rural Broadband Pilot Program to address the issue.
“We’re the utilities,” Frost said. “We allow access to fiber that we will be deploying as part of our grid modernization efforts.”
Dominion Energy is currently doing a grid transformation, which Frost said means the company will be deploying devices down the power lines to gather data. The data will then be used to better understand the functionality of the electric distribution grid and sending fiber out will help support those efforts.
However, Frost made it clear that Dominion Energy is not now providing broadband. They are taking the fiber necessary for broadband to a point that can then be picked up by an internet service provider.
Frost said while Hampton Roads tends to have decent accessibility to broadband, having better access across Virginia will make the state stronger and more economically diverse.
To learn more about Dominion Energy’s Rural Broadband program, visit Dominion Energy online.