Several times a year, Paul Conlin barrels up a steep, wooded hillside in his mud-green Rhino SUV to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain above Hume, to perform maintenance on his equipment, which puts homes scattered in the valley below on the internet superhighway.
The first task for the Blaze Broadband owner is to cut the power to the electrified fence around the perimeter of the small clearing that houses the dish, the solar panels and cabinet filled with batteries that keep it running. The fence protects the equipment “from the bears,” he explains, pointing out teeth marks on a yellow insulator.
Blaze has upwards of 1,500 customers in Fauquier County, including those in the Hume area within the line of sight of the broadband signal from Rattlesnake. The microwave dish there gets that signal from a tall tower in Warrenton.
The breathtaking view from the mountaintop is also a vivid reminder of the challenges the county faces in executing its $20 million plan to bring broadband to everyone in the 651-square-mile county through 130 miles of new fiber and towers. The difficulty is multiplied in the northern and southern parts of the county where fewer people live.
The Board of Supervisors may decide as early as Aug. 8 whether to greenlight broadband proposals from the two companies it selected last November to design and build the new infrastructure, Omnipoint Technology Partners – recently acquired and renamed Data Stream Mobile Technologies – and Tenebris Fiber.
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Conlin, an engineer, launched Blaze 12 years ago in part to get broadband for his own needs. Blaze’s proposal to the county didn’t make the final cut. But even when the county gets infrastructure built, thousands of people will still likely need broadband from wireless internet service providers (WISP) like Blaze.
Fiber optic cable bears pulses of light at speeds that leave copper wire or coaxial cable signals in the dust. The county is cross-crossed by mostly private-owned fiber that providers own or pay to tap into, but it doesn’t reach everywhere. That’s where WISPs like Blaze come in.
Conlin installed and owns 12 miles of underground fiber and leases 150 more miles, but he also broadcasts high-speed, wireless signals from 19 locations with equipment mounted on big towers in Vint Hill and Warrenton, a water tower, poles on the side of Big Cobbler Mountain, atop Rattlesnake and even on the runway light beacon at Warrenton-Fauquier Airport.
Conlin, 50, doesn’t have a phalanx of workers on the payroll. He uses subcontractors to bury fiber lines, just as Comcast and Verizon do. But befitting his background as an automotive engineer, he knows how to engineer solutions.
He devised an unusual one seven years ago for a couple living halfway up the east side of Big Cobbler Mountain in Marshall. Hills obscured the line of sight to a tower 9 miles away in Warrenton, so Conlin put his equipment closer to the top, where it could capture the signal and provide service to that home and other customers.
The property changed hands this year. New owner Christopher May, an engineer with his own consulting business who works from home, says he wouldn’t have purchased the 22 acres on Big Cobbler if it lacked broadband.
“We looked at houses in Hume, Marshall, the Plains, Bluemont, all the way out to Front Royal and the No. 1 catch was always internet. I don’t care about TV or my cellphone, but I had to have internet. I transfer very large data files,” he says. “On a good day I get 25 megabits down and 40 up.” (May’s uploads are faster because of the fiber Conlin ran to the house.)
Most Blaze customers are easier to reach, especially where Conlin has buried the much faster and more reliable fiber lines or leased existing ones. That’s the case for hundreds of new homes in Warrenton’s Brookside development, where Joe Hofman also needed broadband to make his livelihood.
Hofman does advanced troubleshooting for a Texas-based digital banking enterprise. “I couldn’t do my job without it. It’s not commutable,” he says. While Blaze advertises speeds of 250 megabits for its top-tier plan, “I regularly see (speeds) way faster than that, as high as 600 to 800.”
Who needs internet that fast?
“You’d be surprised. The kids are on their tablets, we’re streaming HD videos, I’ve got work going on … and I like to play some very advanced video games. People underestimate how much they need,” says Hofman, who counts 19 devices in his home that swallow broadband.
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When officials preach the need for universal broadband, they always say it’s needed for kids to get their homework done. But people also demand faster connections so they can stream Netflix movies at 9 p.m. on a Friday, Conlin says.
The county is subsidizing the construction of towers by Calvert Crosslands, a Maryland company, and paying Omnipoint to offer wireless broadband in Casanova and soon, other places – more competition for WISPs. New towers, like existing ones, will still need line of sight to homes that may be shadowed by hills or under tree canopies. Smaller relay towers can help with that problem.
Conlin has 16 radio transmitters that provide high-speed feeds to other sites Conlin uses for wireless, including a 105-foot water tower in Catlett owned by the Water and Sanitation Authority. The authority relies on Blaze for a data network to link their pumping stations and headquarters and allows remote monitoring and control of the pumps.
But Catlett doesn’t have a fiber connection, so it gets its broadband signal from the 450-foot tower at Vint Hill that the U.S. Army left behind in 1997 when it closed its once-classified base used for foreign radio intercepts and intelligence gathering. Vint Hill is now a business park and housing development.
The big tower, with vertical wires that make it look like an inverted, skinny guitar, carries other companies’ telecommunications equipment, too. It’s connected by fiber to Ashburn, a global internet hub.
Blaze also laid branch fiber lines throughout the business park. Blaze fiber runs underground through the Vint Hill business park. Titania Solutions Group, a contractor that does high-tech work for the U.S. Army, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Federal Aviation Administration, relies on it. “Everything we do is done on the internet,” says Rob Boucher, vice president and chief technology officer.
Titania used to have offices in two other buildings in the park. Blaze fiber linked them all.
Jodi Johnson, Titania’s founder, president and CEO, says the building they’re in now occasionally has electrical and air conditioning glitches, “but what we haven’t had are problems with our internet connectivity.”
Whatever the county supervisors decide to do, Fauquier almost certainly will still need existing providers to meet its goal of universal broadband. “I believe I’m part of the solution,” says Conlin.
For Chris May, Joe Hofman and Jodi Johnson, he already is.
Christopher Connell is an independent journalist working for the Piedmont Journalism Foundation on this broadband series. He is a former Associated Press assistant bureau chief in Washington.