Orange County's broadband program manager Lewis Foster

Orange County's new broadband program manager Lewis Foster reviews maps of the county in his Belleview Avenue office.

If you live in one of Orange County’s cell-signal dead zones, you’re going to like Lewis Foster.  

Foster is Orange County’s new broadband program manager, and he is determined to bring affordable internet access and a reliable cell signal to every hill and dale from Barboursville to Burr Hill.

Broadband can “empower a remote area so people can stay rural and compete globally,” Foster said.

To identify all the no-signal and low-signal neighborhoods, Foster is asking local residents to fill out the broadband coverage survey posted at orangecountyva.gov. Working with Orange County’s Broadband Authority, Foster will draw on the survey results as he seeks outside funding for the “last mile”—the gap separating customers from reliable and affordable cell phone and internet service.

Foster’s arrival coincides with the final stages of a major fiber-laying project connecting all the public school buildings in Orange County. The schools should have their new service up and running by the end of June, he said.

The county has piggybacked on the Orange County Public Schools’ federally funded broadband initiative. It will use the school division’s newly laid cable as the digital “backbone” for an upgraded public safety radio system. According to board of supervisors chair Jim White, the county will begin building six new radio towers late this summer. Cable connecting the towers to the “backbone” will result in a radio system far better than the current, outmoded one, White said.

In the meantime, Foster is planning to create public-private partnerships and apply for grants that will enable the county to lay still more cable. The goal is to meet the needs of residents who want and need reliable and affordable cell and internet service. For those wondering how cell service relates to expanded broadband, Foster explained that cell companies will be able to place their antennas on the new radio towers. They also can lease fiber to improve the quality of their transmission from existing towers.

“A passion for rural America”

Foster, 56, sat down for an interview last week. His office is on the lower level of the Orange County Public Works building on Belleview Street in Orange, and on his 13th day on the job, it was still sparsely furnished as Foster sorted through paper files and called up information on his computer and phone.

Energetic and laser-focused on his job, he gives the impression of a man who probably won’t spend a lot of time decorating his office. He talks with fervor of the importance of broadband to rural areas and urges Review readers to complete the broadband coverage survey.

A native of Waynesboro, a small town in Burke County, Georgia, Foster is something of a pioneer in his field. He graduated in 1983 with a degree in computer programming from Augusta Technical College and went on to launch the information technology department for Columbia County, Georgia. The job of connecting the computers in all the county offices and speeding up internet service fell to him.

It took a while, but once federal funding became available through the Recovery Act of 2009, the goal was within reach. Foster pushed the project through to completion and became the head of Columbia County’s broadband utility. In that capacity, he oversaw broadband projects and increased broadband access for citizens and businesses—and that’s what he has been hired to do in Orange County.

While working in Columbia County, which grew from around 40,000 people to about 150,000 during his time there, he volunteered to help start a reliable broadband system in his rural hometown. He wanted to make sure Burke County had the same digital access as more populous areas.

He says his “passion for rural America” and a desire to live closer to his children and grandchildren led him and his wife, Cyndi, to Orange County. Although he is the computer expert in the family, it was Cyndi who found Orange County’s job posting for a broadband manager—via a simple Google search.

“I have to give her the credit,” he said with a smile.

“Determination not to fail”

White said he and his fellow supervisors realized the job of running the county’s broadband projects was a big one that no one already on the county’s staff had done before.

Sorting through 30 or so applications, White and his colleagues were delighted to come upon Foster, whose expertise, energy and drive thoroughly impressed them.

 “When we were recruiting for the position, we knew we were looking for someone who had the direct experience and had success in implementing the system. We also were looking for someone to bring the entrepreneurial determination to be successful,” said White.

In White’s eyes, Foster has the necessary “determination not to fail” and to help the county finally connect the digital dots from cable to tower to the farmhouses tucked away at the end of many a “last mile.”

White said he and other local officials had long hoped a private company would want to build the broadband infrastructure and do the work the county is belatedly taking on.

“We waited 20 years and it hasn’t happened. That’s probably long enough,” he said.

To fill out Orange County's broadband coverage survey, click here.

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