Electric change: Nelson makes 'Net history

Some people who live in Nelson County– and parts of Albemarle– probably wouldn't have electricity today if it weren't for the Rural Electrification Act of 1935. That far-reaching bit of legislation guaranteed electricity to vast stretches of rural America the investor-owned utilities wouldn't touch.

Seventy years later, that New Deal program is bearing 21st-century fruit. Some Nelson residents may have broadband Internet service by the end of July.

The high speed Internet service– Broadband over Powerline– will be a first-in-the-world test. The 'Net will pour through the same Central Virginia Electric Cooperative lines that brought the 20th century to Nelson County.

"People are always saying, 'I could do business in Nelson County if I had a high-speed connection,' " says Greg Kelly, the co-op's member services manager.

"Our goal is to break even, pay the bills, and provide a good service," says Kelly.

In this case, that would be broadband– 250 to 400 kbs– for $29.95 a month.

"People in rural areas don't have a lot of options for broadband," says Kelly, who lists a small cable company, dial-up, or satellite service as the choices for most Nelson residents. "We're more affordable and more accessible."

The co-op is working with an Alabama company– International Broadband Electric Communications– to test its turnkey product, Broadband over Powerline. "Virginia will be the first rural deployment in the world," says IBEC's Scott Lee.

If all goes well, close to 1,000 homes served by the Colleen substation could be online by the end of July, followed by the Martin's Store substation that serves Wintergreen in Nellysford.

The market trial of those two will demonstrate whether electric-wire broadband is feasible in a rural area– both technically and financially. If all goes well, deployment will begin at one of the co-op's other 30 substations in 14 Central Virginia counties and continue until all are online.

"The completion of paradise," is how beta tester Ellie Withers endorses the product. "I'm really delighted. It's fast and it's really simple. There's nothing to install." She plugged in a $99 adapter and changed one setting on her computer.

Withers, who works in Charlottesville, needs a virtual private network at home. "I never could get that to work on satellite," she says. "Now I don't have to work at my desk 14 hours," she says. "Before, if there was a problem at work, I had to drive 50 minutes in."

The co-op and International Broadband are working on getting good speeds and reducing noise, which happens on hot, dry days. The heat makes utility poles shrink, loosening the hardware. "That can slow us down," says Kelly. But when the system is rocking, it can reach 1.6 megabytes– the same as a T-1 connection, notes Kelly. In comparison, dial-up offers a paltry 56 kbs.

So how can International Broadband Electric Communications make money charging $29.95 a month and installing the regenerators every half a mile to maintain clear signal quality for as few as seven customers per mile?

"Fortunately, our partnership with the utility means we don't have the cost of line and poles," says Lee. Sixty percent of homes in America currently have no access to broadband. "We see in the long run extremely loyal customers."

Not to mention a potentially huge market. Even Lee himself can't get broadband at his house in Alabama right now.

But what about another broadband product geared toward rural customers– Waynesboro-based Ntelos' wireless portable broadband?

"Nelson County is a perfect example of why it's economically unfeasible to deploy [wireless] in that type of terrain," says Lee. "The trees block the signal. The mountains block the signal."

So if a little nonprofit electric co-op is using its power lines for broadband, does that mean one day Internet access will be paid on the electric bill instead of the cable or telephone bill?

Dominion Power is looking into the possibilities, says spokesman David Botkins.

"We need to determine if it makes sense to get into that business," he says. "We are an electric company, not an Internet service provider."

Botkins lists some problems with electric-line broadband, such as the potential to disrupt ham radio waves, or regulatory issues with the FCC and State Corporation Commission.

"It's very much in its infancy," he says, but concedes, "It is an intriguing and interesting technology."

For the folks in Nelson– and Fluvanna and Buckingham and every other rural area in the country– clamoring for broadband, the technology offers life-changing possibilities, much as those first electric lines did when they were strung back in the '30s.

"It's not so much about technology," says the co-op's Greg Kelly. "It about quality of life."

Dial-up Internet soon could be a thing of the past in Nelson County.