Trace Bellassai (L) and Jordan Labiosa (R) are members of the Craig County Broadband Committee. Photo by Randy Walker.

Almost everyone has heard of 5G, which stands for fifth-generation wireless networking. But some may have wondered what all the ballyhoo is about, or whether it’s just a marketing gimmick.

In Craig County, population 4,892, that question has been conclusively answered, at least for internet customers who live near the county seat of New Castle.

5G is no mere marketing ploy. 

Chad Campbell in his home office. The 5G gateway device sits on the desk. Photo by Randy Walker.

Chad Campbell, an IT specialist with Carilion Clinic, lives in the Camp Mitchell neighborhood outside New Castle. Even before the pandemic, he was working from home. Or trying to.

Campbell had DSL (digital subscriber line) internet through a phone line. “It was extremely slow,” he said. “Most time, not even a meg worth [i.e., one megabit per second] of service at any given point in time. So it just was not acceptable kind of speed to conducive to getting anything done, put it that way.

“I had to work on odd hours when traffic was a lot slower … and it was still a challenge at that. Many times I found I had to go into the office.

“I still have a 12-year-old at home and his main life, if he’s not doing schoolwork, consists of Xbox. That’s his whole life, so XBox or YouTube, you know. So he would be home streaming Xbox when he would be here, like in the summertime, and he would be streaming Xbox and I’d be trying to work. It was impossible. I had to always tell him, ‘Stop it, son, this isn’t working. I can’t work and you do that.’

“And that’s when I reached out to Jordan and asked him. I knew he was on the committee in town for internet services, and I said, ‘Do you have anything in the pipeline coming our way that can be better than what I currently have?’ He said, ‘Funny you should ask.'”

Jordan Labiosa is a member of the Craig County Broadband Committee. Labiosa told Campbell that the committee was working on a deal with T-Mobile. 

“He was telling me the speeds he was getting,” Campbell recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh, holy smokes, you know, sign me up right now.'”

“It was the start of the pandemic, folks were getting sent home,” Labiosa said. “Trace [Bellassai] and I had just approached the board of supervisors about creating a broadband committee. And so there wasn’t any time for big surveys of the community or grant proposals to come in or anything like that. It was, you know, immediate. And I think the main things we were interested in are, what solutions can we get running now, fast, to help folks out the best we can, with no resources? And so we kind of made Hail Mary passes to a lot of folks and we reached out directly to the CEO of T-Mobile. I sent the CEO of T-Mobile a Facebook message. And he responded with one of his senior VPs to handle the project.”

T-Mobile already had phone service, from a tower near the courthouse in New Castle, said Bellassai, chairman of the broadband committee. “It was just that they were enabling the home internet, so that’s why they were able to move really quickly.”

“We’re honored that T-Mobile chose New Castle to pilot their new 5G Home Internet prior to the public national launch today,” the broadband committee posted on Facebook on April 7, 2021. “T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert was reached out to in September 2020 and by December, homes in New Castle were enjoying the fastest internet in our county.”

Mike Sievert. Courtesy of T-Mobile.

In a Facebook message to Cardinal News, Sievert said: “I can tell you we started our 5G expansion in 2020 and later that year we also started offering our T-Mobile Home Internet service in the New Castle area — I’m sorry I don’t have specific dates to share with you.”

Roni Singleton, press representative for T-Mobile, said that T-Mobile home internet is available to 32% of all households in Craig County, and that “T-Mobile Home Internet is just $50 a month, or $30 per month for families with Magenta MAX – T-Mobile’s most popular phone plan!” She said T-Mobile 5G home internet is available to 40 million households nationwide.

5G arrived in Craig County in the form of gray cylinders called gateways. 

The device is “super easy to hook up,” said Bellassai, who lives in the same Camp Mitchell neighborhood as Campbell and Labiosa. “You just take it out of the box and literally plug it in and turn it on and it’ll start working.” Initially the speed was around 150 to 200 megabits, but in 2022, “when they released the ultra capacity, I started getting regularly around 300 and up to 500.

“I was just on a work call yesterday and I had to download a file that was about four and a half gigabytes. And during the call, I was like, ‘Oh, well, mine’s done, I’m getting ready to install.’ And they’re like, my two coworkers on the call, were like, ‘Wait, my install says it’s got like, 25 minutes left, how did yours get done so fast?'”

“Everything you wanted to do online was difficult before,” Labiosa said. “You couldn’t use streaming devices  reliably. Working from home was extremely difficult. A lot of folks said that schoolwork at home was impossible for their students. So, it’s helped resolve that for a lot of people.

“And the bill went down. That’s the kicker. So a lot of people got better internet at a lesser price. And  it’s more reliable than the connection that they had previously, which is my experience.”

T-Mobile’s 5G equipment is located on this tower in New Castle. Photo by Randy Walker.

Businesses in New Castle already had reliable internet via cable, so the main beneficiaries of T-Mobile 5G have been residential users outside town limits, including those with home-based businesses, like Labiosa, who has a marketing business in addition to his work with the county.

“A lot of the work that I do is web development and graphic design, that kind of work, a lot of it’s online communication with my customers. And that was nearly impossible before. A lot of times my Internet would cut out and I had to drive to Roanoke and work out at the Starbucks in order to operate.”

Another happy user is Paula Holtman, who lives about a mile outside town. Like Campbell, she had DSL service.

“It was very slow. We used it to watch TV. And it buffered a lot. We had to reset the modem a lot. It seemed to be a headache all the time.

“My husband works for Virginia Department of Transportation. And when that pandemic hit, they sent them home for two years. So he had to have reliable internet. He was trying to use a hotspot basically from a phone.”

When the T-Mobile gateway arrived, “I was a little bit worried because I only had two bars. And I thought, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t going to work.’  Even with me only having a weak signal, it was way better than anything we had had. As far as service goes, we have not had any issues at all.”

Now, when Chad Campbell’s son wants to play Xbox, “there’s absolutely no problem whatsoever,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if that’s really a good thing or a bad thing. But now he can play it all the time to his heart’s content and not really interrupt anything going on. And certainly downloading movies, we always would have to sit … and wait for buffering for the video to resume watching our movie. So yeah, it’s been a huge difference. It’s a life changer, really, for living out here.”

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...