Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 31

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript of Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 31 with Scarlett McGrady about Virginia's Wired Road. Listen to this episode here.

00:15:

Lisa Gonzalez:  Hello, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  This is Lisa Gonzalez.

In our 31st episode, we take you to Virginia to learn about the Wired Road Authority.  Grayson County, Carroll County, the city of Galax, and the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority are all collaborating to bring access to an area of the state where access was hard to come by.  Before the Wired Road Authority rolled out the open access network, dial-up was the norm, and only a very small percentage of residents and businesses had it.  Scarlett walks us through the history of the network, talks a little about how the project was funded, and describes the multitude of benefits from the network.  Here are Christopher and Scarlett.

00:58:

Christopher Mitchell:  Scarlett McGrady, thank you for joining me on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  I'm excited to talk with you about this exciting project in Virginia.  Perhaps you can start with a brief description of what the Wired Road is.

01:12:

Scarlett McGrady:  Thank you for having me.  Yes, the Wired Road Authority is actually a broadband authority under the Virginia Broadband Authorities Act.  It was actually created by the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority, the city of Galax, Carroll County, and Grayson County.  The region was in need of a world-class digital road system to support existing businesses, create new business opportunities, and provide residents of the area with access to educational and entrepreneurial resources.

01:43:

Chris:  This is a region that is -- it's pretty rural, right?  We're not talking about the suburbs of Washington, DC.

01:49:

Scarlett:  Exactly.  We are in a very rural and isolated area, primarily agricultural-based.  This service area is "underserved."  Only 25 percent of the people in this area actually have broadband access.  There was a random telephone survey that they did in like 2009, that -- about broadband views.  And that is one of the reasons why they created the Wired Road Authority, to transform this region economically.  Because it's so depressed.  Unemployment is reaching like 13 percent right now.  Primarily wood and textile manufacturing environment.  And all of these plants are actually closing down.  So we're looking at increasing unemployment rate, and with broadband in this rural area, we can, you know, change this to a more dynamic, small business, entrepreneur valley, so that educational opportunities will abound, work opportunities will abound.  For example, in western Grayson County, primarily the residents out there only had dial-up or satellite Internet service.  We introduced broadband into the community.  We deployed fiber into the Grant community.  And with that came wireless Internet technologies, of the line-of-sight, to our towers provided residents the ability to receive broadband in their homes.  With this, we've seen people moving into the community with home-based businesses.  So the growth has already started, since we deployed broadband into the Grant community.  There was a doctor's office that was created.  And they do use our system, and do telemedicine through our broadband technologies.

03:44:

Chris:  What you're saying is that there was a shortage.  And so the communities -- what's it -- two counties and one local government -- formed an Authority, right?

03:53:

Scarlett:  Right.  And the city of Galax.

03:54:

Chris:  And they are building a fiber and wireless network.  Now, it's been several years now.  How long has it been going on?

04:00:

Scarlett:  2007 is when the Wired Road Authority was formed.  It started operations in late 2008.  By April of 2009, they had started providing some residential services, but primarily business services, on fiber in Carroll County and in the city of Galax.  But now, here it is the beginning of 2013, and we have fiber in rural western Grayson County.  We -- in this area, there was 70 homes and 3 businesses that was offered fiber.  Forty of those residents and businesses signed connection agreements.  And the take rate on that right now is 50 percent.  So we're seeing success in signing up people for the services.

04:51:

Chris:  And the Wired Road doesn't actually offer services itself, right?  It's taken a slightly different approach.  Can you describe that to us?

04:58:

Scarlett:  The Wired Road network has been in operation as a public-private partnership with what we call an open access network.  That means that service providers market and sell their services directly to their own customers that are on the Wired Road network.  The service providers bill their customers directly.  They have the responsibility for all customer technical support, troubleshooting related to service issues.  The Authority owns and maintains the network.  And the service providers will sign up their customers.  And as they sign up customers, they pay us a port fee for using our network.  And they we get a revenue share for every individual customer or business that they add to the network.  So that's sort of how that works.

05:46:

Chris:  And how did this project come about financially?  You know, I think we see a lot of communities that would really like to do something similar.  And they always want to know how they can fund it.

05:59:

Scarlett:  Right.  We were funded primarily from local governments, private contributors.  The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development was great with offering different grants and loans.  The Appalachian Region Commission and the Virginia Tobacco Commission.  If other areas are interested in seeking funding, the best thing they could do is speak to the USDA.  There's tons of funds out there and available.  And if you need it in your area, it's definitely worth going after.

06:36:

Chris:  So let's talk a little bit about some of the benefits that you've seen because this network was built.  Can you tell me how it's changed the community?  You already mentioned the increase of home-based businesses, which is terrific.  As the network's expanding, what else have you seen?

06:52:

Scarlett:  As the network's expanding, we're seeing the prices of a lot of these utilities come down.  Not only is the broadband Internet prices coming down, due to the competitors.  The satellite providers offering their Internet services for cheaper rates because of the competition.  Phone companies, with the ability to do Voice-over-Internet phone -- they're seeing a challenge, you know, with keeping their customers.  So, not only was it bringing costs down, it's bringing more services into the area.  Economical opportunities, and educational opportunities.  And that's the big one I've seen -- is the educational opportunities.  Different classes, college classes, are offering online classes or hybrid classes.  And with broadband in the area, more students are able to take the online classes, which saves them transportation fees.

The medical center -- we are -- OK, for example, in Grant -- in Virginia, ...

08:05:

Chris:  Um hum.

08:05:

Scarlett:  ... the Grant community is about 30 miles from Marion, Virginia, or Independence, Virginia.  So you have to travel an hour -- you know, there and back -- if you need to conduct business.  Medical appointments -- there's children that see psychologists, and they can do that through our video conferencing equipment at the Wired Roads Grant Community Computing Center.  So that it's also saving the residents and the community transportation costs, and helping them receive services that they otherwise would not get, if it wasn't for the broadband.

08:46:

Chris:  I seem to recall reading an article, a few years ago maybe, talking about how, I believe, this network improved access to the local schools.

08:55:

Scarlett:  The schools was the very first thing that the Wired Road implemented into the network when it was created -- was Carroll County schools.  Galax city schools are now on our network.  And most of Grayson County schools are on our network.  Initially, they were doing fiber to Carroll County.  Then they did a overhead fiber to Galax.  And with the Grant, and the community connect project for the Grant community, the Wired Road is providing two years of free broadband service to the newly-built Grayson Highlands School.

09:34:

Chris:  I really appreciate you fielding all of these questions.  I know that you spend most of your time working in the new Community Computer Center there in Grant.  And so, please correct me if I'm wrong, but also, why don't you tell us why -- or how the Computer Center came to be, and its relation to the Wired Road.

09:52:

Scarlett:  Sure.  The Grant Community Computing Center was created due to the fact that it is virtually impossible to provide broadband into every single residential home in a very rural, isolated area, due to our high elevation, various mountain ridges, and the train here.   Even with the broadband wireless towers, most times will not have a line-of-sight, due to the mountains or the trees.  So, regardless of, you know, how much we put into building towers, there are going to be small pocketed areas where people will not be eligible to receive the broadband.

For that reason, the Wired Road has decided to build a Community Computing Center that is free to the public.  So everybody can come there and then have access to that broadband, for free.  So they still have the same opportunities to do work, or to do educational classes, or to meet with other individuals who have business meetings.  They have access to business-class equipment, and up-to-date computer systems, and free Internet access.  We have nine computers, and a video conferencing room with videoconferencing Polycom equipment.  And we invite everybody in the community to come out and use the facilities.  It's been a great success.

We've had an instructor from Delta State University in Mississippi teach a class from our Grant Community Computing Center.  We have a couple of local musicians that use the Center as their work office.  They actually order their supplies, contact their customers.  They come in and do phone conferencing meetings with customers.  We have an author that uses the computers to submit her works to her publishers.  We've taught her how to put her pictures and her text into the publisher program, and then save it as an Adobe PDF file, so that she can easily send that to her publisher.  We also have a free-lance writer, a journalist that comes in.  And he comes in probably two to three times a week.  He has to have the broadband, even though he has Internet at home, because his files are so large, so that he can submit those to his publisher in Colorado.

So, we're growing.  We offer different clubs, classes, workshops.  Individuals in the community that don't know how to use a computer.  We invite them to come in.  We'll sit down with them, on a one-on-one basis.  Or they can come in during a class period, and we'll teach them how to use the computer.  Those that know some about computers but they're not very proficient, they come in.  We can sit down with them, find out what they know, find out what they want to learn, and teach them.  We have an abundance of free resources -- online resources -- and print materials here at the center that we like to share with everybody.

13:09:

Chris:  There's a perception, among many urban-type people -- often policy makers from major cities on the East Coast -- that people in rural areas -- and Appalachia, it's particularly believed -- do not want or need access to the Internet.  And I'm curious what your experience has been with the enthusiasm of local residents.

13:34:

Scarlett:  Yeah.  I find that that's generally not true.  Actually, since we've deployed broadband in western Grayson County, there's been two individuals.  One moving into the area from Las Vegas.  And the reason why he moved into the area is that we finally had broadband access.  He had been looking at a property for some time, and that was the only thing that was keeping him from moving to the area, is because he had to have that broadband for work purposes.  And now that we have the broadband, he is moving here, along with some other family members.

Then there's another family -- um, I'm not exactly sure where they're from -- but they actually run an e-commerce business online.  And they are going to be moving into the area as well, and starting their own home-based business -- small e-commerce business.  But they would not be moving into the area if it wasn't for the broadband availability.

So, I feel like a lot of these people that's already here, that are doing Appalachian-type crafts -- people make jewelry.  There's a gentleman that -- he sells his goods right now at Abingdon, at the art gallery there in Abingdon, Virginia.

14:55:

Chris:  Um hum.

14:55:

Scarlett:  But I'm going to sit down with him and we're going to create a website.  So he will actually start selling his own goods, for himself, online.

So, I think the people in Appalachia -- as soon as they've realized how it can benefit them, how much it can save them.  Just going, for example, having broadband in your home, you can cut your phone bill.  If you go with a voice-over-Internet phone system, you could drop $20 to $40 off your phone bill.  If you go from -- most people have satellite television out here.

15:33:

Chris:  Um hum.

15:33:

Scarlett:  If they went with a, you know, smart TV package -- you know, $30-$40 for a box, and then $12 a month.  So they could potentially save $50-$100 a month with their cable bill.  Different things like that.  As soon as they see that it can, number one, save them money; number two, make them money; number three, now that they have a place to go where they can get information and learn about it from somebody in the area, they'll be more apt to come in and use the broadband.

16:08:

Chris:  Is there anything else that we should know about the Wired Road?  It's a really -- it's a fascinating project, that I've been following for a number of years.

16:15:

Scarlett:  Well, we've completed our first mile.  And working on the middle-mile.  And, primarily, that means, we've got a good backbone, or infrastructure, started.  We've got redundancy going in Grayson County.  We'll soon have redundancy going around in Carroll County.  So, it's a very secure, stable network.  We have gigabit capabilities.  And that is very big right now in broadband.  I know Bristol Utilities just came out with a press release stating that they were able to offer gigabit service.  And the Wired Road can offer gigabit service.  So that's something key.  So if there's any businesses out there that are looking at a new place to locate, Galax, Virginia -- or any place along the Wired Road, you know -- would have the capability to have their facility.

17:12:

Chris:  It's an exciting time.  It's -- I can't even imagine how much Comcast or CenturyLink would charge me, if I called up and asked, as a small business, what it would cost to get a gigabit of service.  I think they'd probably just laugh at me, ...

17:29:

Scarlett:  [laughs]

17:29:

Chris:  ... and I have to assume the price would be at least twenty times more than anything I would pay in Galax.  Gah-lax?  Gay-lex?  How do you say it?

17:35:

Scarlett:  Right.  In Gay-lax.

17:37:

Chris:  In Galax.  Yes.

17:37:

Scarlett:  Um hum.  Right.  And right now, we do not have a set rate that we announced.  Because our service providers actually sell that service.  That would be up to the provider ...

17:47:

Chris:  Right.

17:47:

Scarlett:  ... what they wanted to charge for that.  But I do know that it would be quoted out, and -- on a one-on-one basis.  They would actually, you know, work with the business, and look at other things.  There might be some really good discounted rates, you know, just to get somebody signed up the first time, so that we could really brag about it.

18:07:

Chris:  Right.  And, then, it would be terrific to have three different choices, in addition to the incumbent providers.  So --

18:13:

Scarlett:  Oh, absolutely.  We're actually currently seeking these service providers.  Um, interested in speaking with individuals like Gamewood, to see if they might be interested in doing something with our area.  But we are open access.  Any service provider that wants to sell their services can do so.  It's -- anybody can sign up.  So if anybody's interested, all they have to do is contact us, and we'll give them the information they need.

18:41:

Chris:  Yes, and Gamewood is the -- got its start in Danville, Virginia, down in -- the open access network, a little bit south of you, I believe, right?

18:50:

Scarlett:  That's correct.  It's my understanding that Danville only has one service provider.  They are open access.

18:57:

Chris:  Right.

18:57:

Scarlett:  But the only service provider they have currently is Gamewood.  We have -- we were very lucky to have three very competitive providers right now.  But we're always looking for more.  Because the more providers we have, the more competition, the lower that price is going to be.

19:15:

Chris:  Well, thank you so much for your time, and all of your work to improve the access to the Internet out there in Virginia.

19:20:

Scarlett:  Well, thank you.

19:22:

Lisa:  That was Christopher visiting with Scarlett McGrady, who also manages the Grant Community Computing Center.  Be sure to check out more details about the collaboration at thewiredroad.net .  You can also visit muninetworks.org and follow the "wired road" tag, to read our articles and updates on this collaborative, that's brought so many positives to the region.  If you have any questions or comments, please send us a note.  E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org .  Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets .  The show was released on January 29th, 2013.  Thanks to the mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.  The song is called, "Bodacious."

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