As Orange County works with an independent consultant to discover an answer to its mounting communications problems, the solution could also prove to be the viable answer to delivering broadband to the county.

The county is currently working with RCC Consultants to fix problems with its outdated E911 and sheriff’s office communication systems. As an interesting byproduct, in upgrading these systems, the county may also create an opportunity to bring broadband to the underserved areas through a public/private partnership.

“When you think about emergency communications you think of voice and radios,” interim county administrator Bryan David said. “There’s mounting evidence that first responders will also increasingly need wireless data service. The interesting thing is that it can be transmitted over the same signal.”

David said since the county needs to replace its communications system, it could design one capable of providing wireless data coverage.

“Think of a smartphone, which can both make calls and also surf the internet, created specifically for first responders,” he said.

Such technology exists, but the county lacks the infrastructure to make it work. To create the system, the county would need to investment in infrastructure such as towers and fiber optics which he said lots of communities use since the prices of such equipment are affordable.

Then, the county could double that system’s ability by making economic development investments to partner with private sector carriers like AT&T and Verizon to utilize the unused half of the system to provide wireless broadband access to the rural areas of the county. He said the emergency responder section of the system would be kept safe through the use of firewalls and other protections to keep the private sector from accessing it.

“There’s a real desire in this county to bring broadband access to the underserved rural areas,” he said. “By utilizing a known investment, you create a ready opportunity to take [partner with the private sector] and [deliver] reasonable broadband speeds to everyone.”

He said it would create a third option for those who currently are only served by dial-up or satellite internet access. Building the infrastructure to enable the fixed wireless service could be costly, which is where the private sector comes in. Plus, typography could pose a problem in some areas of the county.

David said the idea of using the system to bring wireless broadband to rural areas is a concept, with no working models in Virginia. However, he said similar ideas have worked in large metro areas in other parts of the country.

The sheriff’s office said it supports the idea of creating a system that would handle data as well as voice. Chief deputy Mike LaCasse said the office tries to maximize its personnel, since there’s a limited amount of people and the more who are out in the field, the better.

He said about six years ago, the office installed laptops in the road deputy vehicles with the end goal of having them always remain in the field and never coming into the office. He said internet hotspots were set up around the county, mainly at fire stations, which could be used by the deputies to submit paperwork they would have normally had to do in-office.

“There was also a state initiative to have all accident reports completed online,” he said. “The deputies can do the biggest part of their paperwork in the car and then transmit it back to the office at one of the hotspots, but they still have to drive to those hotspot locations which is still time out of the field.”

LaCasse said having a system that could handle data would allow the deputies to submit their reports back to the office through a more sophisticated digital terminal system as seen in other counties, thus eliminating the needs for the hotspots as data could be transmitted from the car’s location anywhere in the county.

According to David, RCC Consultants, who the county has hired to deliver solutions to its communication system problem, is very familiar with the broadband idea and will determine how to progress to implement the model.

“It really takes reliance on the private sector,” he said.

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