FAIRLAWN -- An organization to create regional broadband Internet service throughout the New River Valley and beyond is on the verge of being established.
It is the culmination of about three years of work to gauge the need for such a network and to complete a plan to start and fund it.
Its first phase would provide 34.5 miles of fiber connections from Wythe County through Pulaski County and into Montgomery County to Christiansburg, mainly along U.S. 11 and Virginia 114. Eventually, other parts of a 280-mile network would be put in place.
At a meeting Friday, the New River Valley Planning District Commission Telecommunications Committee considered breaking up the initial phase into smaller chunks such as Wythe County to Pulaski County or Dublin to Christiansburg. Instead, it decided to start off with that entire route, which can link with other networks on either end.
"Right now, New River is totally isolated," said Dave Rundgren, executive director of the commission. "If we close those two pieces, we're totally connected."
On July 12, the Virginia's First Regional Industrial Facility Authority authorized forming a participation committee to include its seven counties, three cities and five towns, as well as several private companies and nonprofit organizations.
It will be set up along the lines of the authority's only other participation committee, in which 11 of its jurisdictions fund shares in Commerce Park, a large industrial site created in Pulaski County in a so-far-unsuccessful effort to land a large industry. The entities that take part in this second project would also buy shares and, as with Commerce Park, be able to share in any profits down the road from a telecommunications network.
One thing that makes this project different from Commerce Park is that there would be a second organization, the New River Valley Network Wireless Authority. The Virginia's First committee would set up the public-private partnership and handle financing and fix rates. The wireless authority would build and operate the network once all participating jurisdictions approve its articles of incorporation.
The Virginia's First authority will be asked at its Aug. 9 meeting to approve an application to the Appalachian Regional Commission for a grant to start the project.
Rundgren sees the broadband network as an economic development tool. "It isn't any different than an industrial park or any of these other infrastructures we've put in place to allow private enterprise to make a living," he said.
Most of the first year of the telecommunications initiative was spent surveying businesses to see if they needed better Internet capabilities -- survey results said yes -- and working to convince local governments of the need to invest in it.
Jim Sandidge, technology director for the Pulaski County school system and current chairman of the district telecommunications committee, made presentations showing the difference between current Internet links such as dial-up and broadband. Generally, broadband offers a much larger pipeline so that more data, and even video, can be transmitted faster.
Several communications companies and a few local governments are working on their own broadband deployments. If those later become part of the regional network, each one could further extend its own system through it.
Radford City Council recently approved $1 million to launch its own wireless broadband, following a shakedown pilot project at an apartment complex. Pulaski has issued a request for proposals for downtown wireless services from providers and will receive them Friday. Pulaski County has its own telecommunications committee working on wireless broadband. All of this could eventually be part of the regional system.
Originally, the system was seen as something that could put the New River Valley ahead of other parts of the state by boosting existing businesses and maybe attracting others. But in the past few years, other regions in Southwest Virginia have begun their own broadband networks.
John White, economic development director for Pulaski, said the town's effort to create an affordable wireless broadband system is a way of creating more value for residents.
Broadband access has become a necessity for doing business, he said, but its availability no longer distinguishes a locality.
"Everybody has it."