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August 9, 2019

Supervisors back ambitious broadband incentive plan

The supervisors agreed to consider a plan that would provide subsidies for Florida-base Data Stream Mobile Technologies to rapidly expand wireless broadband service on up to 15 existing towers.
We’re trying to be as creative as we can, within the confines of the law.”
— Supervisor Rick Gerhardt
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Fauquier’s board of supervisors Thursday agreed to pursue a two-pronged approach that would extend broadband internet service to rural areas of the county.

After a 70-minute closed session Thursday afternoon, Supervisor Rick Gerhardt (Cedar Run District) unveiled an incentive plan to use up to 15 existing telecommunication and water towers in portions of northern, central and southern Fauquier to provide high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved homes.

Under Mr. Gerhardt’s incentive plan, Fauquier would pay Fort Lauderdale-based Data Stream Mobile Technologies Inc. $150,000 per tower to install equipment that would provide wireless broadband via the structures by year’s end. That equates to $2.2 million.

In a separate move, the board voted, 5-0, to authorize County Administrator Paul S. McCulla to negotiate a possible agreement with Data Stream to provide broadband internet service across Fauquier. Fredericksburg-based Omnipoint Technology Partners LLC submitted the proposal. But, Data Stream owns a controlling interest in Omnipoint.

The incentive plan would fast-track the provision of broadband, while Fauquier negotiates a comprehensive, long-range plan to extend the service throughout the county, Mr. Gerhardt explained.

Fauquier also would subsidize Data Stream’s cost to lease space on up to 10 structures for two years, according to Mr. Gerhardt’s proposal. The $18,000-per-tower lease contribution would total $360,000.

Fauquier would use money in the county’s capital improvement plan dedicated for broadband to fund the nearly $2.3 million proposal. The 2020 CIP includes $20.7 million for broadband expenses.

The Data Stream subsidies would be “offset by” a portion of subscriber fees the company would give Fauquier, Mr. Gerhardt said.

He outlined two possible scenarios, assuming a customer base of 2,000 subscribers. Under one, Fauquier would receive $10 a month per customer, for a total of $240,000 annually. At $15 per customer, Fauquier would get $360,000 a year.

“Ideally” such a payback arrangement “would continue as long as” Data Stream provides broadband to the county, Mr. Gerhardt said in text Friday.

But, he stressed: “Everything in that outline is negotiable at this point.”

As of Thursday night, Mr. Gerhardt had not discussed the proposal with Data Stream representatives. He plans to personally negotiate a possible deal with company.

If Mr. Gerhardt can strike an acceptable agreement, the supervisors expect to approve it at their Sept. 12 meeting.

“What I like about this is we could almost begin immediately,” he said.

Mr. Gerhardt expressed no doubt that Data Stream can get the job done.

“Based on everything that I’ve seen from Data Stream and what they’re doing in the county and elsewhere, I have a lot of confidence in their abilities,” he said. “And, I certainly have confidence in their financials.”

Endorsing the incentive plan, Supervisor Chris Granger (Center District) said: “I don’t see any detraction from it . . . . It seems like a no-brainer.”

Mr. Gerhardt described the approach as “one more tool” to extend broadband to a county that craves it.

“We’re trying to be as creative as we can, within the confines of the law.”

The supervisors last year approved a telecommunications towner incentive plan that would pay a Baltimore-based company up to $30,000 annually, per tower constructed for up to five years.

Omnipoint’s comprehensive proposal calls for 130 miles of underground fiber optic cable to connect 64 locations in Fauquier. With up to 21 new towers and existing structures, such a network would serve about 94 percent of the county, according to the company

“We believe our solution will position Fauquier County as a leading example of how counties should implement a world-class, state-of-the-art solution that will be a model that others will emulate,” the Omnipoint proposal states.

Springfield-based Tenebris Fiber LLC also submitted a proposal to design and build a network to provide broadband to Fauquier’s unserved and underserved areas.

Its proposal calls for 134.2 miles of underground fiber optic cable to serve 39 sites. That network would cost $22.2 million, according to the Tenebris’s 33-page proposal.

Mr. Gerhardt declined to discuss why he and the board prefer the Omnipoint proposal.

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300.
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bahnsidthe · August 19, 2019 at 2:14 pm
I have read these comments with interest, both for and against. Broadband for the UN-served areas of the county can only improve property values, enable commerce, and improve life. All for it.

However, when did the government get into the business of competing against commercial enterprises? For example, putting an unwanted monopole tower in Bellevue Estates - a neighborhood already using 2 service providers and which is only 1.2 miles from a fiber backhaul? If, as Mr. Gerhardt says, broadband is NOT a utility or right, why is the county competing in the market to put existing commercial vendors out of business? So much for the free market economy. Have also been told that a neighborhood with a tower will not get fiber anytime soon. All of the county's fiber will be connected to county properties, again a worthy goal, but don't sell your broadband initiative as bringing fiber to residences when it isn't. The county will say fiber is too expensive, but they won't make money off fiber and they will on towers.

The Casanova tower was supposed to provide 100 Mbps service, but has only delivered 20-25. Better than what they had, sure, but fiber would give a lot more. Since some places, such as Bellevue, are already able to get 25 Mbps from the current vendors, where is the improvement?

A previous article on broadband had Mr. Gerhardt dismissing Claude Schock of High Mountain Farm Broadband as just looking out for his own business interests. That's what businessmen do and that is what the county is doing. At least Mr. Schock is providing broadband service to UN-served areas like Rectortown.

The county and Datastream (formerly Omnipoint) have been working behind the scenes to put up an unwanted tower since January. When repeatedly asked, the county Broadband representatives responded that there was no plan and no permit. However, their engineer and the Datastream contactor reviewed a site in January and another site in March. Yes, the contractor which wasn’t chosen by the county until August 8. Soil testing was ordered as well. How then is there no plan? So much for transparent government.

I'm calling shenanigans. Hope someone outside the county does an exposé on this kind of backroom wheeling and dealing. Broadband is a fine goal, but perhaps the county should focus on the UN-served sections of the county rather than on the so called "easy wins". The county will get paid for towers, so towers it is, but forcing unwanted towers on people and misleading constituents is bad government.
JDwarrenton · August 15, 2019 at 2:37 pm
When looking for land to build on 22 years ago, I realized that I would be working from home, and I wanted decent internet connection, and a short drive to a Fed- X box (then a near daily work essential) and the Post office too, as well as the occasional can of gas to mow, or a gallon of milk, etc. I wanted more land, and I first looked in Orlean and other more rural locations, but I look back on it after all these years and found I made the correct decision - close to town. Later as my kids aged, I found being close to schools for after-school activities was quite important too with all the trips to games and practice.
barrylevine · August 12, 2019 at 7:55 pm
So many great arguments for and against this issue. The quality of life and technology has converged. We recently moved to Marshall/Orlean and I was surprised how under-served by technology we are. I completely understand the trade off of affordable land/housing and love the beauty this sparse community. I knew the commute was going to be a challenge, I was not prepared for lack in technological convenience. I support this initiative but, time will be the jury of the proposed technology performance and associated costs. We will never know unless we try and must have confidence in our elected officials to represent our best interests. Is that too much to ask? Hard to say these days, I still remain optimistic maybe a bit naive.
Jim Griffin · August 12, 2019 at 10:43 am
Yes, 5G will lead to proliferation of small cell sites, but is less about big towers with a wide range (the 4G/LTE approach).

5G is a certainty due to federal mandates driving security and commerce considerations. It typically (but not always) uses spectrum with relatively poor propagation, sometimes hovering a bit below or above 1,000 feet between pizza-box-sized small cells.

This will prove challenging, especially for property rights concerns, as the Feds seem insistent on overriding local issues in pursuit of ubiquitous coverage.

Agreed, broadband is no longer an amenity. Public safety, medicine, transportation, communications and an evolving Internet of Things depend upon ubiquitous data.
farmbum · August 12, 2019 at 9:19 am
Sorry JDwarrenton,
This is all about access to a good quality service. That service has many parts, internet access being one of those parts. Voice and emergency services, others.

Rural areas such as Fauquier have poor cellular services. This proposal aims to also address that.

As far as 5g goes, unless the 4g infrastructure (towers and backbone) is in place. Forget about it.
JDwarrenton · August 11, 2019 at 9:23 am
Why do people move to a rural locale, and then complain when they don't have access to suburban amenities. Then they expect someone else to pay to upgrade their experience.

Reminds me of those that knowingly purchase property (at a lower price) outside the sewer service district, on poor soils that are marginal at best, or don't perc at all, and then feel that someone else should provide a public sewer treatment plant and all the extension lines needed to connect to their property.
RGLJA · August 11, 2019 at 9:02 am
This isn't a problem of government inefficiency, nor greedy businesses. It is simply an economic reality. Imagine you were running Comcast and you know you can earn about $30 profit per month for every customer you subscribe. But you have a few people who live a mile away from any other subscribers. It would cost at least $25,000 to run a single mile of fiber to that home (probably more than $100,000 per mile realistically (see the Tenebris fiber proposal mentioned in the article above). Even if there are ten other homes nearby, and half of those want to become Comcast subscribers too, that's still an extra investment of several thousand dollars per customer, which means there is no possibility of any profit for more than a decade under the most optimistic projections. And by then, there may be technology disruption (e.g. 5G deployment), which would wipe away all those customers before any profit is possible.

This internet service problem is fundamentally no different than our sewer and water service problem. The county cannot provide water and sewer service for every resident; it isn't even available for many who live inside the so-called service districts. You simply have to resort to your own private septic field and/or private water well sometimes. We can't expect the taxpayers to subsidize our needs, much less our entertainment, if we choose to live in the beautiful rolling hills far away from the service districts.
Jim Griffin · August 10, 2019 at 11:55 am
I do not oppose our county govt's interest in addressing our broadband problems. I applaud Supervisor Gerhardt's efforts. I think it appropriate and overdue, but it does raise concerns about implementation.

We want this in the very worst way and that may be how we get it!

More than 750 American communities took this route:

Competition for Comcast:

When Chattanooga took this path, citizens got 1,000 mbps and a 10 gbps option:

The result: More business, more jobs:

Chattanooga is an example of what we want, what we need to jump start our local economy. To Ann Dubas' point, it is a collaboration with local utility provision.
Ann Dubas · August 10, 2019 at 10:23 am
Like others we have terrible Internet service. Neighbors recently moved in from Alaska and were shocked at how terrible our "service" is. We have traveled the world and had better service in the 3'd world than we have 1 hr from the Capitol. In Marshall they have fiber. 5 miles west we have zilch. In terrain like Fauquier Co,
service lines need to be underground. Dominion Electric says they plan to underground the electric lines (about time) but I have heard that they refuse to run fiber along with their lines. Such a collaboration would seem to be cost effective for both entities. For any service, not every customer is equally profitable. I believe that a utility should not be allowed to cherry pick only the most profitable locations. They should serve the entire state if they want to do business there. However I do not object to public support for the up front costs with a payback plan as noted in the article. Once the lines are run it's all gravy.
RGLJA · August 10, 2019 at 7:58 am
Congratulations JG on your new-found skepticism of this broadband boondoggle. Now you're railing about the same issues I mentioned a year ago, including the last mile issues and private investment issues. There is a good reason that companies must be paid to participate in these local rural broadband projects, because the pros know very well there isn't a sufficient customer density to ever pay back investment costs. Comcast, TimeWarner, etc would love to have more customers, but they know it is entirely impractical to expand into areas with such a low population density. The US is littered with failed local govt initiatives that promised to overcome these economic realities, at great taxpayer expense. Of course we are always told these projects are necessary anyway, for the "education of our children", particularly the under-privileged families, when in fact many of the beneficiaries are very wealthy landowners with huge farms/estates, which drives the low customer density in the first place. So government tax dollars from people in the crowded service districts are indirectly subsidizing the wealthy landowners. How bizarre.

I've also complained that we have novices in local government who are effectively trying to run a small business in a technical area where they aren't fully equipped. Rick Gearhardt is a good man trying to help his constituents, but this broadband initiative needs far more open review, and much more independent technical/business review, than it has had to date. Otherwise, the contractors are going to take Fauquier County to the cleaners, and we will still not make a dent in the fundamental problem.
Jim Griffin · August 10, 2019 at 5:22 am
My experience matches that of farmbum. I'd recently read about decent 4G service through ATT in Marshall. We are in The Plains, so I tried it. It was not good, but I have hopes that more towers might change our experience. Perhaps. Invest $200 for an outdoor router, $40 month for service, installed myself, but no joy here.

In fact, we paid $370 this month for a Verizon T1 line we've had for years. It provides 1.5 mbps. It is extremely unreliable. Verizon calls it a "chronic" ticket because it is out so often. We've learned to repair it ourselves because it is often days of outages despite a 3-hour service "guarantee."

I want to believe in these proposals and feel generally supportive, but am becoming suspicious by the lack of public involvement. At first, Gerhardt agreed to meet, then he never did. There was recently a public broadband meeting schedule, then it was cancelled, and a closed-session happened instead, resulting in the above 5-0 vote.

The light of day is the best disinfectant, so I am turning skeptical until this process is more transparent. Fiber is positive for infrastructure, but the connection is only as good as its weakest link.

Furthermore, there can be no question that the greatest expense and most important outcome determinant will be customer support, both telephone and hands-on visits. What are the plans in this regard? Remember, support phone calls average $50 apiece when all is said and done, and visits are multiples of this because they involve trained, certified installation experts with trucks.

Two things are certain, however: 1, The people want fiber, and not just a fiber backbone. They want fiber all the way to the TV screen. 2, 5G is inevitable as a Federal priority for govt and commercial purposes.

Give these certainties, where does this effort fit? Are we throwing ahead of the runner or just behind? Is 4G enough when shared among ten thousand new users off towers? My new 4G router says no, it is more expensive than many think and more complicated in implementation than most will bear without expensive, extensive support the cost of which may wipe out any return on investment, not to mention truly pitiful data rates and intermittent service that will truly disappoint students and most users who want their Netflix, gaming and high-bandwidth apps.

Maybe my new skepticism is unwarranted, but a string of cancelled meetings and closed-door sessions is cause for concern. What are we buying, how will it be supported, and will it be fit for purpose?
farmbum · August 9, 2019 at 2:59 pm
What is missing from the expansion is the peek at throughput and availability in areas thought to be covered by the "broadband" term.

My service sucks. I get a weak 4g signal and even poorer throughput when I get that signal. That's obviously through a cellular provider. For WISP services I can't see the water tower due to geo obstructions.

Yet, we are considered covered by broadband.

I wonder how many others in Fauquier will share our fate?
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