INDEPENDENCE – When Dawn Rhudy has to check her email or make a phone call, she drives from her family farm in the Elk Creek community of Grayson County to a local cemetery where she might get a signal.
Ironically, it’s the only spot in her community that isn’t a dead zone.
In Troutdale, about 30 miles to the west in Grayson, Cassie Grubb has no way to call her family or speak to a doctor about her 2-year-old daughter, who was born with a lung disorder that often leaves her breathless.
Her daughter is about to have open-heart surgery, which will require monthly 9-hour round trips for follow-up appointments at the University of Virginia – or a simple videochat, if they only had a way to connect.
They are just two of the more than 5,000 Grayson residents with little or no internet service – nearly 57% of the county’s population.
Broadband isn’t a luxury for people like Rhudy and Grubb living in rural communities in Southwest Virginia – it’s a lifeline to business, healthcare, education and the outside world.
For years, Grayson County’s most attractive feature – the towering Blue Ridge Mountains – has also been its biggest obstacle. The terrain makes it difficult to run high-speed fiber optic cable, leaving many residents feeling stranded and isolated.
In the past two years, Grayson County, internet service provider Gigabeam Networks, and Appalachian Power Co. have come together to bring high-speed internet to one of the commonwealth’s least-connected counties. APCo is using it as a pilot project that could be replicated in other communities if it succeeds.
On Sept. 23, Facebook announced that it is joining what has become a mission to prove that if Grayson County can be connected, then so can anywhere in the world – no matter how remote.
Grayson County Administrator Bill Shepley worries about losing population – particularly younger generations – due to economic factors.
“I get a few calls a day from people who want to move here, and broadband is one of the first things they ask about,” Shepley said. “It affects their advertising, ordering, distribution; and quality of life for their employees. It’s a deal-breaker.”
He said he knows Grayson has lost out on many potential employers due to this lack of connectivity.
When the county conducted surveys about interest in broadband, citizens’ comments were often troubling – no way to connect with friends online, no access to telemedicine, no signal to call family members or contact customers.
“One person said they felt like they’d missed out on the past 20 years,” Shepley said.
Being cut off from the online world doesn’t just mean no Netflix or Facebook; it can be life-threatening.
Grubb lives on a farm with her husband and twin daughters. One has pulmonary stenosis with pulmonary hypertension of the lungs.
“If she gets hurt, she’ll cry, and if her oxygen is low, she’ll pass out because it drops even lower,” Grubb explains.
With no reliable internet connection, she can’t contact anyone in an emergency. “I can’t call my parents; I can’t even call my husband. I can’t call nobody for help,” she says, throwing up her hands in resignation.
Next year, Grubb’s daughter Lydia will be have open-heart surgery and will need to a doctor every other month. Without access to telemedicine, the family will have to drive all the way to UVa in Charlottesville, four-and-a-half hours away.
“It’s a struggle, because you have to take off work, you gotta book a hotel; when it’s just a little simple thing that you can just videochat” with a doctor from home, Grubb said. “If we had the connectivity that we needed, a big, huge weight would be lifted off my shoulders. I would have peace of mind.”
Shepley said more than half of the fire and rescue stations in Grayson are without internet access.
While surveying citizens, the county found that many of them travelled 50 miles or more for medical care. About half the population is age 50 or older, many living in remote areas.
Shepley visited with residents of the most remote parts of the county, where there was no internet or phone service. “Most of these residents were females between the ages of 60-90 who explained their system of visiting one another regularly to make sure all was well,” he said.
Not only does the lack of broadband prevent new businesses from coming to Grayson, it also could result in the loss of existing businesses.
“If we don’t have a way to contact our customers, we have no business,” Rhudy said of her Mountain Memories Farm, which sells grass-fed lamb and beef, free-range eggs and organically grown vegetables. “We’re gonna have to quit if we don’t have some better internet.”
The business has been in the family since her dad started farming in the 1940s. Today, nearly 80 years later, her area of the county has about the same connection to the outside world as it did then.
“Because I don’t have a good internet service, and I don’t have cell phone service, I have to drive to our cemetery… that’s the only place we have any kind of service in the community,” Rhudy said, noting that sometimes she still can’t get a signal there.
“We miss orders because people just can’t really contact us. It’s really frustrating,” she said. “If we don’t have a way to contact our customers, we have no business. Everybody says, ‘I’ll send you a text’ or ‘I’ll send you an email.’ [I say] ‘OK, I hope I get it.’”
With a stronger internet connection – or any connection at all – she estimates her business could double in six months.
Facebook took notice of the Grayson project when the company began expanding its fiber fiber network in Virginia to data centers in Ohio and North Carolina. Grayson County’s administration, APCo and Gigabeam already had their local broadband project underway when Facebook saw an opportunity to achieve their mutual goals.
But long before the tech giant joined up, Grayson had done extensive groundwork.
Shepley said the initiative started in 2017 with an idea from John Fant, supervisor at-large on Grayson County Board of Supervisors. Fant wanted the county to do something to improve broadband, noting that nearly a third of Grayson’s 15,000 citizens lack internet access.
“Even as a farmer, accessing markets, reviewing sales – all that’s done over the internet,” Fant said. “So, the lack of access is really preventing the county and its people from participating in the modern economy.”
Fant and Shepley put together a committee with technology director Carl Caudill and the Mount Rogers Planning District Committee. They hired a consultant, Sandie Terry of Rural Broadband Consulting, and began surveying citizens about their needs. Gigabeam came onboard as a service provider and the group began securing grants to pay for the work.
“We figured it was a 10-year project, so we thought we should start to chip away at it,” Shepley said.
After several more months of work, the county was approached by APCo, which wanted Grayson to serve as the testing ground for a new concept – using its transmission system to also carry fiber.
APCo “was looking for a remote county with challenging terrain to serve as a pilot,” Shepley said. “What they’ve said is that, basically, if they can do it here, they can do it anywhere.”
The problem was that the utility needed to change state law to make it possible. Enter Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, who sponsored a bill in the General Assembly in 2019 that would allow electric utilities in Virginia to run “middle mile” fiber along the power line routes that already criss-cross the state. The bill passed, and Gov. Ralph Northam came to Grayson to sign it into law and connect the first piece of fiber cable at the historic 1908 Courthouse in Independence.
“You will see Grayson County become a multigenerational place where it’s not just a retirement community,” said O’Quinn of the project. “You will have the ability to stay where you want to stay and do the job that you want to do because you have the connectivity to pull it all together… It really is a permanent game changer for the county ― and for everyone who chooses to call it home.”
O’Quinn’s bill has resulted in utility companies connecting more than 13,000 homes and businesses to broadband across the commonwealth, according to the governor’s office.
After the Grayson project obtained approval from the State Corporation Commission, Caudill worked with APCo to create the infrastructure that would cover most of the county’s 446 square miles. The fiber installation began last year.
“We are pulling fiber and attaching that to power poles along the routes here in Grayson County, and then Gigabeam will actually splice that fiber and provide access points to provide the service to the customers,” explained Brad Hall, vice president of external affairs for APCo.
“If not for APCo doing this, we’d still be 10 years behind,” Caudill said. “That was the turning point.”
“APCo putting in the fiber has saved the county millions of dollars in resources,” Shepley said. “If not for them, we would’ve had to rely on grants.”
Caudill said about 40% of the 240 miles of fiber has been installed, and “we figure the majority of the county can be connected by the end of 2022.” That’s well ahead of Gov. Northam’s goal of achieving universal access in Virginia by 2024.
Facebook got involved after company representatives talked to Gigabeam CEO Michael Clemons, who told them about Grayson’s project.
Shepley said Facebook wanted “to expand their availability and use this as a model for their worldwide initiative.” The company had done similar projects in the flatlands of Indiana and Texas, but never in a mountainous region like Southwest Virginia.
The company is providing engineering, construction and technical resources to the project. “Facebook brought to the table solutions that we wouldn’t have been able to have done internally,” Clemons said. “We’re a small, regional ISP with no engineering in-house, so we outsource everything we do. Facebook helped us get that part solved.”
The rollout of broadband in the county is being done in phases, which are happening simultaneously.
Phase one is the Elk Creek area, because some of the grant funding the county received requires that areas with the highest populations of underserved citizens get connected first. Next will come Fries, Troutdale, Comers Rock and Spring Valley, and connections will spread west to Mount Rogers.
Caudill said the broadband will be a “hybrid solution” of fiber to the home (about 70%) and fixed wireless transmitters (about 30%). “If you are more than 2,000 feet or so from a fiber connection, you can get connected through wireless.”
For fixed wireless, homes will have antennas that connect to wi-fi “microsites” ― antennas on utility poles, powered by solar panels. “You can connect from miles away.” Locations have not been determined yet, but Caudill said they will mainly be on remote mountainsides, like Point Lookout.
One landowner already has granted the county permission to build a micro tower on his property, which will relay a signal over the valley in the Summerfield community, near Briarpatch Mountain.
The connections are expected to meet the FCC’s high-speed broadband standards of 25 mbps or greater for downloads and 3 mbps for uploads.
Caudill said APCo is set to hand its fiber network over to Gigabeam on Oct. 1, and the company can finish the job of connecting homes and businesses.
Gigabeam plans to roll out its customer internet offerings this fall, but Grayson residents can sign up now and will be contacted when service is available in their area.
Shepley says the project’s success proves the importance of advanced planning, even for projects that seem too ambitious for a small, rural county. “We had it all ready,” when APCo and Facebook joined the effort. “We were able to hit the ground running.”
Caudill is passionate about the project and what it could mean for people of Grayson County and beyond. “The internet is a utility, not a luxury. We wanted to see how broadband would impact people’s lives for the better.”
Shepley and Caudill are unsure whether the project will benefit from a $220 million allocation of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to support broadband expansion in the commonwealth, approved in early September. According to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the state will be able to use the funds to increase broadband efficiency and reduce the costs of providing broadband services.
“Broadband is to the 21st century what electrification was to the 20th,” Warner said. “The COVID-19 crisis exposed that far too many Americans are being left behind without access to high-speed internet for work, school or telehealth.”
The initiative has garnered widespread bipartisan support at both the state and federal level, with both sides realizing that they can’t get their message out to constituents who are cut off from the world.
“In today’s America, we can’t work, live, raise a family without connectivity,” said state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, who represents Grayson County. “There are so many opportunities that are being missed throughout our districts, from economic recruitment to doing their homework.”
Despite the smooth path the initiative has taken, there is one potential roadblock – a legal challenge to a similar project in Culpeper County, involving alleged infringement of property rights.
The Rappahannock Electric Cooperative is working to extend broadband service there, and a landowner has taken the utility to court over rights to run fiber on electrical lines that cross his property. The cooperative first offered John Grano $5,000 for the rights, but rescinded the offer after O’Quinn’s law went into effect. The law does not require landowners to be compensated for running fiber on existing power lines.
Grano’s lawsuit has indefinitely halted the $600 million project, after the cooperative unsuccessfully argued to have the case dismissed in federal court. Attorney General Mark Herring even intervened on the cooperative’s behalf, but the case is still moving forward.
Caudill said the county has heard no complaints from landowners so far about property rights issues.
Facebook and APCo have cautioned Grayson officials to expect calls from other communities around the country looking to replicate their project.
Hall said the project might be the first of its kind in the U.S., but it won’t be the last for APCo. “Many other organizations are working to duplicate this work, and I think success here will create hope for a lot of rural Americans.”
Neighboring Carroll County is already laying the groundwork for a similar initiative, and has begun surveying citizens about their broadband needs. Partnerships between other localities and utilities are springing up all over Virginia as a result of O’Quinn’s bill. “We’ll be in the spotlight,” Shepley said. “Even though we’re a small, rural county, we can still be a leader.”
Brian Funk has been covering the Twin Counties region of Southwest Virginia (the City of Galax, Grayson County and Carroll County) for The Gazette newspaper since 1994, and has served as editor since 2007. During that time, he has won several Virginia Press Association awards for feature and editorial writing, photography and page design, mainly for covering the area’s rich musical heritage. He also writes fiction and publishes comics through his creator-owned imprint, Midnight City. Brian lives in Galax with his wife, Rebecca, and son, Alex.