(Delmarva Now) -- Eastern Shore of Virginia residents spoke about their current and hoped-for internet service at two town hall meetings this week.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority held meetings in Melfa and Eastville to hear from the public.
The authority, a public not-for-profit company formed in 2008 by Accomack and Northampton counties, has hired CTC Technology and Energy, a consulting firm from Kensington, Maryland, to guide them through a strategic planning process over the next several months.
More than 40 people attended the meeting Wednesday at Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa.
On the wall were maps of the Eastern Shore, with a small black star marking every 911 address and green lines denoting existing broadband fiber.
“We just wanted to give people a visual to show there is a network that’s out there and it has grown over the past eight or nine years the broadband authority has been in existence,” said Robert Bridgham, ESVBA's executive director.
“Every day, we’re building farther and farther out. Our intentions are to continue to expand the network to try to reach more and more people,” he said.
Information from the meetings, and from county supervisors and internet service providers, will be considered as the authority works “to try to come up with a common plan that satisfies the needs of the Shore,” Bridgham said.
"The question is, how do we do this in a strategic way ... that's sustainable," he said, adding, "We certainly want to maintain stability and sustainability, but in a way that makes certain we continue to expand as fast as possible."
Andrew Afflerbach, CTC Director of Engineering, facilitated the meeting.
“It’s a utility. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fundamental, like power and water,” he said.
A show of hands revealed about two-thirds of attendees currently get their internet service through Verizon.
Afflerbach first gave an overview of the history of data speeds — from dialup modems to next-generation technologies like fixed millimeter wave.
About DSL, the option available to many Shore residents, he said, “We’re really talking about rather slow speeds and we’re talking about also a technology that the phone company is really no longer interested in. The phone company’s interested in mobile, so there’s not very much investment going on here.”
Afflerbach pointed out the extent of the green lines on the map — indicating where fiber has been laid — saying, “It would be a shame not to make the best use of this resource, and that’s what we’re looking to do here — we’re looking to have a plan together.”
Afflerbach asked what service attendees currently have, where they live, what works well, and what does not work well.
Around 20 people responded, most of them expressing frustration with their present level of service.
Terri Rose, incoming president of the Eastern Shore Association of Realtors, spoke first.
“This directly affects my business. When people get down a beautiful neck with the high-end property, and they want to move in, they ask if there is internet capability — and oftentimes there is not. So, it will kill a deal real quick,” she said.
Rose and another speaker, Alex Vargas, both said they do not have broadband access, despite living within a few feet of a line laid by the authority.
“I have DSL, which is horrible,” Rose said.
“I telecommute, every day, so it really matters to me,” said Vargas, who works fulltime and also owns a software development company.
Vargas advocated for “fiber-to-home” service to be offered by the broadband authority, saying, “I think the strategy should be, build out to where you already have the fiber first, rather than going to areas that don’t have fiber yet.”
He said “the money goes farther” under that scenario.
Vargas said property values go up 5-7 percent when a house has fiber to home internet service, "so you're talking about revenue to the county."
Terry Malarky of near Onancock said DSL service was extended down the neck where he lives about 10 years ago.
“Internet is this century’s indispensable technology, as electricity was in the last century,” he said.
Malarky said the Shore needs something similar to the rural electric cooperative model to provide internet access to remote areas.
“I’m disappointed the broadband authority has never gone into retail,” he said. The wireless internet service providers on the Shore “cherry pick” areas to cover, he said, adding, “They go for pockets of population, and I understand that, because they need to make money.”
The authority in March did approve extending residential fiber to the home service for residences fronting its current fiber route in Keller, Bobtown, part of Pungoteague along Gospel Temple Road, Hollies Church Road, Beacon Road, Adams Crossing, Center Street, and Bobtown Road between Hollies Church Road and Harborton Road.
It also approved extending service to residences fronting its current fiber route in parts of Northampton County.
Malarky said Accomack-Northampton Electric Cooperative already has the infrastructure, rights-of-way, and a billing system to provide utility service.
“With the right political will — some kind of combination between the broadband authority and A&N Electric — something could be made to work and we could all have access to this wonderful technology,” he said.
Cara Burton, director of the Eastern Shore Public Library, urged the authority to "focus on who is not in this room tonight ... There are a lot of people on the Eastern Shore that cannot afford the internet."
She praised the authority for providing free public wifi in various locations – including Parksley's town pavilion, Chincoteague's Robert Reed Waterfront Park and Exmore's Custis Park.
Additional free WiFi hot spots the authority provides are at the Eastern Shore Welcome Center at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel; Indiantown Park in Eastville; the broadband authority offices in Exmore; the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce in Melfa; Accomack's new Sawmill Park in Accomac; the Mary N. Smith Cultural Center in Accomac; and the Bloxom Tower in Bloxom, according to a map on the authority's website.
"I really strongly encourage that you do more of it," Burton said.
Susan Martin, who homeschools her son, said the Shore is "going to have a drain of our youth from the Eastern Shore" unless internet service improves.
Her son often would be in the middle of taking a test online and their Verizon DSL connection couldn't keep up, she said, noting they have since gotten service from Neubeam, another internet service provider.
"I think education online is the future, but we need to have the infrastructure for it," she said.
Joe Betit of Pungoteague said internet service "is as foundational as a road to your house."
Betit serves on the foundational and entrepreneurial subcommittee of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission's Economic Development Committee and has worked for years in technology fields.
It is costly to set up and maintain the necessary staff and equipment to service retail customers, he said, noting the broadband authority is "solvent."
"We need to understand what you actually can do with the degree of solvency you have," he said, noting the two Shore counties do not contribute to the authority.
"We have to get the fiber to the houses. What is the vehicle that is financially rational to allow us to do that, and how many years will it take to do this?" Betit said.
Pat Coady, former executive director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, said the authority is financially "capable of doing a lot for us. We have to decide what is we really want them to do. Do we want them to go out and get a bond ... and build out a lot quickly and carry that bond cost, or do we want them to continue to build out the way they are building now?"
Coady said grants the authority received paid to build about 200 miles of fiber. Since then, the authority has built more than 100 additional miles, "all out of current cash flow."
Additionally, the authority has repaid the two counties their initial investment of $266,000.
"You have a tremendous success story on the Shore with the current broadband authority, and it's up to us, the citizens of the Shore, to figure out where we want them to go from here, and what we want the relationship between them and the competition to be," Coady said.