New broadband service turns UVa.-Wise into UVa.-WiFi

Stephen Igo • Sep 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

WISE — All that’s missing from a brand-new on-ramp to the information superhighway for residents of the town of Wise and students at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise is a toll booth.

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., was on hand Wednesday to formally launch the free high-speed broadband Internet service to townsfolk and the college, brought to them by county government officials and adjunct agencies like the Lenowisco Planning District Commission, and private partners like the Virginia-Kentucky Communications Co., based in Wise.

Already thinking expansion of the new Municipal Mesh Networking (MMN) service — perhaps from Wise to Big Stone Gap by next year — Boucher said the latest technology sprout to blossom across his district is more fertile ground to see his rural region “be a leader in the nation” when it comes to information technology innovations.

Boucher said he would like to see Wise County become the first county in Virginia to offer the free WiFi broadband service to all residents, and most likely the first county nationwide to do so. The new system serves remote devices or laptops, but indoor users could access the MMN as well by use of appropriate exterior antenna equipment.

And it all cost a measly $20,000 to set up in Wise. Wireless routers have been installed at the courthouse to serve the downtown area, at the college to serve students and residents of that area, and on Hospital Hill for residents in that portion of the town. Another router is located at the Lonesome Pine Regional Business & Technology Park to serve businesses there as well as the airport.

Virginia-Kentucky Communications ponied up $10,000 of the cost, the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology chipped in another $4,500, and the Wise County Board of Supervisors added the balance. Virginia-Kentucky Communications also installed and will maintain the system.

What the company gets out of the deal is bandwidth access with Sunset Digital Communications of Duffield, the contract operator of Lenowisco’s Rural Area Network that has been extending its fiber-optic network across the region over the last few years. In fact, Sunset Digital’s Paul Elswick said his company is fiber-linked from New Tazewell, Tenn., to Charlottesville these days.

Besides serving residents, businesses and students, Boucher said visitors will benefit from it, too.

And Boucher said the free mesh network “will make a tremendous impression” on businesses looking to expand. When business executives taking the grand tour “see a local government committed to providing this level of information technology service,” said Boucher, it’s not going to hurt the county’s recruiting pitch one bit.

Boucher heaped accolades on the Wise County Board of Supervisors for its leadership, Circuit Court Clerk J. Jack Kennedy for promoting the use of information technologies in government, and Virginia-Kentucky Communications’ Steve Blankebecler for his company’s ability to know a good deal in a public-private partnership invitation when it sees one.

“This is a great step forward for Wise County. It’s going to mean a lot for the quality of life here,” Boucher said.

Reflecting on his own penny-pinching years as a college student when he agonized over whether he could afford phone service, Boucher said the free service should be a boon to the 1,900 students at UVa-Wise. That struck a chord of sweet music to UVa-Wise software engineering freshman Jacob Atkins.

“It means lower expenses because we won’t have to buy Internet service. I mean, that’s at least another $20 a month in my pocket for books or whatever else. Twenty dollars can mean a lot to a college student. Over a year’s time, that’s quite a bit of money,” said the 2007 J.J. Kelly High School grad.

“It will mean better and greater access for our students, and it will mean the cost of education will be that much less for students who won’t have to buy Internet access,” said Keith Fowlkes, vice chair of information and chief information officer at UVa-Wise.

“What is particularly pleasing to me is that this is a matter of exceptional governmental coordination on display. Many towns and counties just don’t seem to have the level of communication that Wise County’s got. Officials here are very tight-knit and very forward-thinking, especially the way they look at technology as a strategic advantage to attract businesses here to Wise County, and provide a community service to the people while they’re at it.”

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