By CALVIN PYNN
As most parts of modern life – including news, art, jobs and entertainment – are highly dependent on a reliable Internet connection, there are still a number of people without access to that service.
As evidenced at Monday night’s Board of Supervisors meeting, a lot of those people live in Pulaski County.
The board voted Monday to approve a grant application to bring better access to high-speed Internet to the county. It’s a service that the more remote corners of the county lack, and several county residents came before the board to express their concerns about the lack of connectivity.
“I’ve seen the county lag behind in technology,” said Tom Wilkinson, who lives in the county’s Ingles district. “I’m looking at property values decrease because of the Internet problems. It’s just awful.”
Rebecca Scheckler, a Draper resident and instructor at Radford University’s School of Nursing, said the county’s lack of connectivity creates problems for those trying to pursue an education. She emphasized that many of her own students who live in Pulaski County are required to take online courses, and those who work from home are restricted by limited access to high-speed internet.
Sheckler also added that broadband is critical to the county to promote healthcare and aging in place, in addition to education.
“We live in an underserved medical area,” Scheckler said. “I’ve had to advise well-qualified candidates to not go into the [nursing] program because they don’t have good Internet access.”
Jeffery Scott, deputy chief information officer for Virginia Tech, also lives in Pulaski County, and said the limit to broadband service has created a challenge for his own employees who live in Pulaski County and are on call. He urged that making the effort to get that service available in the county would help them compete in the international marketplace, and be beneficial to Pulaski’s younger professional residents.
“It’s crucial, I think, to the future of the county,” Scott said.
County Administrator Pete Huber said approving the grant application would be for planning purposes in addressing Pulaski’s Internet issues.
“My personal belief is that it would make quite a difference in property values whether your area has capability of getting high-speed Internet, as the board is moving more and more in that direction,” Huber said. “Whether it’s job applications or medical type issues, it affects the community.”
The combined Pulaski County Wireless Authority and Telecommunications Committee originally considered providing $7,500 for a matching grant to bring broadband to the area. While that is the minimum amount for a match, the groups decided at a meeting last Thursday to add $2,500 to that amount for a total match of $10,000, in order to increase the chances of getting a grant that could provide for better broadband service.
Huber said the addition to the originally proposed matching funds would me more flexible, and could allow incentives for potential Internet providers. Those could fund needed equipment to set up a connection, or a study to see which parts of the county need it the most.
That money could also be used for a service provider to go to a certain area to test the signal, according to Huber. A 2010 census recorded it as one of the highest income growths in both the Roanoke and New River Valley metropolitan statistical areas, meaning it could be available to those who could afford a high-quality Internet connection.
Huber said they would also need to consider the other end of the economic spectrum, including people living further out in the county who struggle to pay normal bills and would not be able to afford Internet service otherwise. One thing he suggested that could help is looking into options for providers that offer bundles of Internet and cable television packages.
“In any case, there’s two things: one is the availability for people that can afford Internet, and the other is the folks that can’t afford it,” Huber said.
He pointed out that a lack of access could create other problems as well.
“It’s hard to apply for a job these days without Internet service,” he said.
While it’s an issue that affects county residents on an individual basis, board chairman and Cloyd District Supervisor Joe Sheffey said he’s learned in recent years that it can affect a local government’s image as well.
“If you don’t have good broadband and a good webpage, no one will look at you; you’ll get passed over,” he said.
In order to potentially alleviate that issue, the board voted to approve the grant application, including the $10,000 in matching funds.