- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2020

AMHERST, Va. (AP) - In nearly two decades of living at her current home in Amherst County, Monica Dean said her massive struggles with affordable high-speed internet access make her feel like she and her husband have been left behind.

The retired couple lives in the Bobwhite Road area of the county, where the internet is slow, unreliable and costly when it’s even working, she said, and they’ve dealt with high cellphone bills.

“If I had known about these problems when I moved here, we would not be living in Amherst County today,” Dean said. “I feel like the entire county has been left behind and its children are going to suffer because of it.”

County officials are working to resolve online woes of residents and businesses through a broadband expansion effort with the help of companies to have all homes covered with reliable service.

While areas of Madison Heights and the town of Amherst are covered, county officials have said many rural areas outside of those urban hubs are underserved or unserved and the goal is to fill in those gaps. The county in 2019 began allowing use of public safety towers for a local company to cover more homes and a portion of federal stimulus money to deal with many effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been geared toward broadband upgrades.

County Administrator Dean Rodgers said $1.8 million is currently obligated with Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, to install fiber-optic cable in the Gladstone, Temperance and Boxwood Farm areas. That work is set for completion before the end of the year as part of a deadline for spending the federal money.

The county is also pursuing more than $1 million in grants to further extend fiber in rural areas and install some 60-foot-tall towers, Rodgers said. If those grants are received, the county could bid out more expansion work in March 2021, he said.

The Amherst County Public Schools system also has committed $450,000 of its federal aid money toward the efforts.

“We want to keep going toward fiber and not wireless to the extent we can,” Rodgers said.

The county’s department of community development is tracking data to map out where the broadband infrastructure is needed, which will be shared with companies in submitting bids for bridging the gaps, Rodgers said. A Bedford County-based company has expressed interest in crossing into the county from Big Island and providing service on the Virginia 130 corridor, he said.

The Virginia 130 corridor and connecting Buffalo Springs Turnpike to U.S. 60 West, as well as serving rural communities such as Pleasant View, Lowesville and Elon, are target areas for the county.

Rob Arnold, superintendent for Amherst County’s schools, has said the Amherst Remote Academy, which launched this semester to give families and students a remote, online source of education in place of traditional in-person learning, is the division’s largest school this year in terms of enrollment. The large movement this year to increased online learning and residents working from home have has made the push for countywide broadband expansion more crucial than ever, officials have said in comparing it to electrification of rural areas in the 1930s.

Arnold said while online learning is useful for many families during the pandemic, he feels children are best served around other students and caring adults face to face with safety measures to protect against the coronavirus.

Dean said she couldn’t imagine how families with poor internet access or none at all are dealing with at-home learning. She feels it is among the county’s top three priorities.

“Whatever way gets it done expediently is the way to go,” Dean said. “Children in Amherst County will never catch up if we don’t do something about this now.”

She lives less than two miles from the U.S. 29 Bypass and said she is envious of other rural communities she’s been to with similar topography that are better served.

“It’s depressing,” Dean said. “It’s frustrating to not have what other counties have.”

She said her husband, who years ago had to rent an office to work professionally because of lack of service at home, has spoken extensively with the county about their issues.

“We’re still waiting,” Dean said. “All I care about is high-speed internet at an affordable rate. I don’t care how they get it here.”

Rodgers recently said the countywide broadband build-out effort may take several years and it remains a top priority. The two big drawbacks of living in a rural area are lack of internet and hauling trash, he said.

The county is working to make each of those challenges much more convenient for residents, including adding more solid waste convenience center locations, he said.

“I think we’ll change the character of the county,” Rodgers said of the county’s strides. “There will be more people who want to live here.”

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