JAMES CITY COUNTY — Since the beginning of the pandemic, the dependence on technology to keep families, friends, and businesses connected has gone up significantly.
In the span of a year, people celebrated birthdays via Zoom, discussed business strategies in Google Meets, or simply talked to the friends they haven’t seen in-person in months.
Even education hopped online to bring classrooms into the students’ homes.
But none of this would be possible without signal and service.
For residents who live in some parts of James City County, it’s been a year of quietly praying they have enough bandwidth for a video call.
According to data from BroadbandNow, a national research team that helps consumers learn about internet providers in their area, “The average download speed in Williamsburg is 114.01 Mbps. This is 24.0% slower than the average in Virginia and 18.1% faster than the national average.”
On top of that, about 8.5% of the population, which is 7,000 people, only have access to one or fewer wired internet providers available at their address.
Of course, when BroadbandNow says Williamsburg, it is talking about the zip codes 23188 and 23185.
Toano, on the other hand, has about 400 residents with access to one or fewer wired internet providers.
To address the issue, some localities have taken steps to provide broadband access to residents.
For example, last Spring, the Williamsburg Regional Library launched a hotspot WiFi program. The library parked a vehicle at designated locations throughout the county where a hotspot could be accessed by up to 15 people at a time.
And according to Cox, the company worked with JCC to provide broadband to unserved homes “by leveraging nearly $100,000 in federal CARES Act funding. With the recent distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funds, we’re proposing the County consider investing a portion of those dollars to partner with Cox so we can reach the few additional areas that aren’t currently able to access our services,” the statement said in an email from June 11.
However, having to use hotspots to get residents, especially students, online wasn’t viewed as a crowning achievement.
“That is a shame that that’s how we had to work in order to get our students online for school,” Michael Hipple, chairman for the Powhatan District, said in a phone interview. “As advanced as we are in James City County, and we’re not a poor community by any means, we can’t get internet throughout the county.”
From the same email, Cox also mentioned its largest issue in the area is getting broadband access to more rural locations. This cannot be accomplished without the use of easements.
“If expanding our network requires crossing private property, permission must be obtained via an easement. Not only is the application process lengthy and can cause construction delays, if a property owner at the entrance to a neighborhood doesn’t want service and denies our easement request, it could impact all other residents down the line who are eager to obtain services as well,” the statement read.
But another issue in the county is the lack of competition among local providers.
According to BroadbandNow, there are two providers throughout the Historic Triangle, with Cox being the most popular one for both residential and business use.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on May 11, several residents spoke during the Public Comments session on their struggles with Cox, addressing issues of affordability and quality of service.
“COX is our only cable provider in James City County,” Hipple said. “One of the things we’ve heard repeatedly over the years is the lack of competition.”
And while the county has attempted to draw more companies into the area, there are several factors preventing providers from moving in, and the largest being the lack of infrastructure.
As for the price of service from Cox, there is little local legislation can do for residents.
“As far as the nature of our relationship with COX, it would be a good idea to include our federal representatives because it is federal legislation that prevents us from controlling anything about the choice of channels, the pricing structure, and so forth,” John McGlennon, chairman of the Roberts District, said during the May 11 Board of Supervisors Meeting.
To address the issue of cost, Cox also offers a program to provide low-cost internet for families with children.
“At the onset of COVID, we heard concerns about affordability from families with children learning virtually from home. Our Connect2Compete program offers low-cost internet to families with K-12 students, eligible for government assistance. With no annual contract or fees, these families can get reliable broadband at home for only $9.95 a month. And during the pandemic we extended support for families by committing to $60 million to the efforts and offered the first two months free,” Cox said.
But negotiations are currently underway between Cox and the County. Back in 2011, the Board of Supervisors entered into a cable television franchise agreement with Cox, which expires on June 30, 2021. Staff from the County and Cox have been negotiating the terms of a new franchise since late 2020 but have not yet finalized a draft franchise for the Board’s review.
On June 8, the Board of Supervisors approved a one-month extension of a franchise agreement with Cox to allow county staff more time to complete negotiations.
Back on May 27, county staff delivered a letter to Cox asking them to include several provisions that have been requested by citizens, including adding a monetary limit on all cable costs, offering low-cost rates for low income customers and senior citizens, and removing additional fees for customers with subpar credit rating.
The letter can be accessed through the item summary in the online agenda.
“The county is open for providers to come here,” Hipple said. “And not only would it help businesses but it would help individuals as well.”
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