Public-private project brings high-speed internet service to Rockbridge area.

July 2018

High-speed internet service is rapidly becoming a necessity. Across Virginia, communities without it are turning their attention on how to get it.

This is the story of how one area in the state is addressing its need for high-speed internet.

Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) is a public-access fiber network capable of transmitting at gigabit speeds across its service area of Rockbridge County and the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista.

Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains, these are communities characterized by hills, horses and small-town hospitality. High-speed internet has only recently joined the line-up.

The nerve system for RANA is the Richard A. Peterson (RAP) data center, which sits on a patch of high ground on the Washington & Lee University (W&L) back campus.

As chief technology officer at Washington & Lee University, David Saacke knows that bandwidth and speed are critical components for success at a modern university, particularly in STEM-related fields. “We now have the opportunity to move massive amounts of data very quickly, in a way that we couldn’t before. We can build environments for [professors and students] to share research data with other universities,” says Saacke. “It puts W&L on the digital map with urban areas.”

In other words, W&L may sit in a rural county — where the occasional bear strolls across campus — but students and faculty interact with the world as if it’s at the doorstep. Bandwidth is not an issue with RANA. There’s adequate bandwidth for video-conferencing, including video conversations across the U.S. using multiple live feeds.

RANA is also affordable for residential consumers. “If you boiled RANA’s mission down, it was to provide accessible and affordable broadband to the residents of Rockbridge,” says Saacke, who is also a RANA board member.

This mission kick-started in 2008 when W&L pursued a public-private venture with Lexington, Rockbridge County, Buena Vista, and the local internet service provider Rockbridge Global Village, which led to the creation of RANA and the RAP data center. Both became operational and available to the public in 2013.

The data center, built to the standards of a Tier 2 data facility, can meet the disaster-recovery needs of small and mid-sized businesses. Files housed digitally at an office, for example, can be duplicated and preserved in digital cabinets in a climate-controlled area inside RAP. The data center can also play an integral role in business-continuity planning. If disaster strikes one office, systems will keep operating across other locations.

Realizing the impact of RANA, Mike Keyser, the CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative, headquartered in nearby Millboro, saw an opportunity. BARC could deliver high-speed and affordable internet services to its rural customers by leveraging the RANA network to build farther out and connect to underserved areas.

And that is what’s happening today. BARC is expanding its own fiber network off of RANA to serve its customer-owners in the county. The ultimate goal, says Keyser, is for business owners and residents to enjoy the quality of life associated with rural living while also enjoying the accoutrements of urban life.

For business owners, what are some of the benefits of using the RANA fiber network? Steven Wray, chief information officer at Cornerstone Bank in Lexington, likes how efficiently the network connects the bank’s downtown headquarters with its regional branch. RANA also increases the speed of customer transactions. “It’s fast,” says Wray. “And there wasn’t ‘fast’ or ‘affordable’ here until there was RANA.”

Nikkie Leech of the WellPet Group, a veterinary practice where reliability and unlimited broadband are of vital importance to a pet’s medical treatment.

Nikkie Leech of the WellPet Group, a veterinary practice where reliability and unlimited broadband are of vital importance to a pet’s medical treatment.

Law firms and small businesses could similarly benefit. “If a law firm in D.C. had a branch here … instead of buying local [internet] they could have [the branch] on the exact same network,” explains Saacke, and it “would appear as if people were in the office right next door.”

But ease of access and a competitive monthly rate aren’t the only economic benefits if you’re thinking about starting a business here. “You’re going to have cheaper real estate, cheaper labor, cheaper everything,” explains Saacke. “So if you’re looking to expand, and you have an affection for Lexington, you know you’re going to get a good deal compared to an urban area.”

Small-business owners can also take advantage of the cost benefits associated with nearly unlimited broadband. A coffee shop, for example, can juggle simultaneous internet activities — from customers watching videos and checking text messages to point-of-sale transactions with credit cards — without maxing out their service. The tank won’t run dry.

“We haven’t had drops … like what we were experiencing previously,” says Nikkie Leech, business manager at the WellPet Group, a growing veterinary practice on the outskirts of downtown Lexington where reliability and unlimited broadband are of vital importance to a pet’s medical treatment. “Everything runs off the internet. Everything transfers. X-rays. The software itself. If anything’s down — processing credit cards — nothing can be done. We can’t look at medical records. We can’t function.”

Another selling point? Reliability. “We have a new fiber infrastructure that’s in the ground,” says Scott Robertson, RANA’s executive director. “Once it’s in the ground and once it’s lit, that fiber infrastructure has very few things that can bring it down.”

In 2017, BARC began providing fiber-to-the-home access through BARC Connects, a wholly owned subsidiary of BARC Electric Cooperative. BARC has incorporated the RANA network into its larger plans to make fiber-to-the-home available to every single home and business in Rockbridge County. The long-term plan is to build fiber-to-the-home access to all BARC Electric customers in its five-county region.