By Stephen Peck
Construction is set to begin Feb. 6 on a broadband network expected to pave the way for a bright economic future in the Rockbridge area.
As a result of the Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) project, new technology capabilities will give the county tools to compete with any other business community in the world, said Brian Brown, director of economic development for Buena Vista.
“We will soon have the same technology levels that you would have in New York City or anywhere else,” Brown said.
Officials from Buena Vista, Lexington, Rockbridge County and Washington and Lee University created RANA in 2009 to bring high-speed Internet and reliable phone and cable television connections to area businesses, schools and homes. The project was made possible after RANA received a $6.9 million federal stimulus grant, which was matched with $3 million from local governments and other partners in the network authority.
Buena Vista residents, along with others in the Rockbridge area, hope to see groundbreaking on the $10 million project next month, with 2013 as the completion target.
The project is awaiting cooperation from some Rockbridge County landowners who are hesitant to sign easements allowing RANA to install fiber optic cables on their roadside properties. RANA needs the permission of an additional 265 residents before it can begin laying the cables.
Dan Grim, geographic information system coordinator for Rockbridge County, said current bandwidth capabilities of area data providers pale in comparison to what RANA can offer.
“It’s like the difference between a sparkler and a Saturn V rocket,” Grim said.
Grim believes the broadband project will attract new businesses to the area, retain existing ones and create jobs.
A 2008 preliminary survey for the project found that bandwidth needs for businesses have been growing by 25 to 50 percent every year in Rockbridge County. Businesses are incorporating more services like video streaming, teleconferencing and online file hosting in their daily operations.
The area’s current wireless services cannot keep up with these demands, but RANA will offer a gigabit of data — more than enough to operate efficiently and encourage existing businesses to stay.
With advanced broadband capabilities, the Rockbridge area will now be able to do business with companies that it previously had to turn away.
“We get requests from call centers all the time looking for facilities that have the infrastructure like this to operate,” said Sam Crickenberger, director of community development for Rockbridge County. “We couldn’t offer those capabilities prior to this project.”
Buena Vista officials have spoken to people in high-tech industries such as aviation and energy who are looking to relocate operations.
Brown hopes that Buena Vista’s relatively low cost of living and other incentives will help lure some of those businesses to town.
“We have several different incentives that we have within our community to try and attract business,” he said. “This is another tool in our toolbox.”
Buena Vista, which has lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs in recent years, offers special incentives for technology businesses to come to the area, including low-interest loans, a 50 percent rebate on utility taxes, 50 percent off occupational license taxes and possible investment grants.
“I tell them that, basically, we can do it cheaper than other communities can, and we can still give you same quality,” Brown said. “I see around 200 to 250 new jobs over the next five years as a result of RANA being developed.”
The project is not without precedent. Danville began creating a broadband network similar to RANA in 2004. Like Buena Vista, Danville was a manufacturing town that lost a lot of jobs to cheaper labor markets.
The city began developing a broadband network called nDanville in an attempt to turn its economy around. Grim said that today, nDanville generates revenues and has helped lure major businesses, like IKEA, to the city.
Crickenberger said broadband’s benefits extend to the home as well as the office. He said it will allow people to work from their homes while enjoying faster Internet connections.
Brown said that once construction begins and RANA gains momentum, people will begin to take notice.
“For a lot of people, this project is still conceptual, until you see the actual fiber going into the ground.”