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County gets broadband study report

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Dec 25, 2020

Jefferson County commissioners discussed a possible partnership with the Jefferson County Board of Education to place a cell tower at the location of the new Shepherdstown Elementary School building on Gardner Lane. Toni Milbourne

CHARLES TOWN — The Jefferson County Commission was presented in its meeting this week with an initial report from Andrew Cohill, a consultant with Design Nine, Inc., who was hired to perform a broadband study. The study was made possible through grant funds secured from the federal government.

Having completed a business and residential survey on broadband and internet services, Cohill said there was a 12 percent response rate.

“That is the highest we have gotten at any county level,” Cohill said. “Three percent is considered good.”

Of those responding, 89 percent said better internet services were needed, with more than 50 percent of them saying they were unsatisfied with their current service. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents indicated that availability of internet is a deciding factor in where they choose to live.

“That is the highest we have seen in any county,” Cohill said.

A factor that may add to those high numbers is that of the 104 businesses responding to the survey, 88 percent of them said there was a need for their employees to have internet in their homes.

Not surprisingly, rural areas in the county showed less stable internet services. Many residents and businesses lack even minimally adequate broadband.

“Fixed point wireless broadband is important to improving access,” Cohill said, stressing that the county should not be in the internet business and should not compete with the private sector, but should be limited to providing infrastructure for the private sector providers.

Questioning what fixed point wireless broadband was, JCC President Jane Tabb was told it is internet services provided wirelessly from a tower, compared to internet on a cell phone, which is mobile.

Cohill explained there are potential grant dollars to help add towers within the county as part of the infrastructure.

“The Department of Transportation has significant road projects scheduled. Maybe we can negotiate with them to lay conduit in their upcoming projects,” said Commissioner Josh Compton. “That is a good place for the county to look to improve infrastructure.”

While the addition of needed towers could be costly, several possible funding opportunities including adjusting a price structure to provide access to towers to wireless internet service providers. He suggested looking ahead for future CARES funding, which will likely be available for projects like these.

Cohill also referenced hot spots in school buildings that are spread throughout the area. The initial study showed several areas that could benefit from additional towers or access points.

Another potential partnership the JCC discussed was partnering with the Jefferson County Board of Education to install a tower at the new Shepherdstown Middle School and Elementary School complex, which would assist in covering a rural area often lacking sufficient internet access. Commissioners referenced the recent bond passed to build a school in that location, speculating whether a tower could be part of the building plan.

“The long-term goal should be to provide some fiber to the homes in certain areas. It is critical to attracting and retaining businesses,” Cohill said. “Broadband has economic development benefit.”

Commissioners asked what a potential timeline could be for providing additional bandwidth or towers within the county.

“This is the very first step of a process that will take a long time to complete,” said Commissioner Patsy Noland. “I hope it won’t take as long as it has already.

“The public needs to understand that this is not something that will happen in the next month or the next two or three months. They need to be patient and realize this is a process,” she said.