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COLUMN — A taste of no broadband

It was encouraging to hear in the last week or so from county administrators in central Virginia that expanding broadband in their respective counties was a high or top priority.

Living near downtown Farmville, I enjoy ready access to high-speed internet from home, and it is easy to take this for granted.

If I want to send an email or access some information on a website or stream a video, I can do those things almost immediately.

On election night, Nov. 3, I was exposed to life without readily available internet access or even a readily workable signal strength on my iPhone.

I was serving as The Associated Press (AP) stringer for Charlotte County.

The AP had reporters monitoring the Virginia Department of Elections website where Charlotte and every other county in the state were reporting their results. But I served as the AP’s eyes and ears at the Charlotte County Registrar’s Office, pulling voting numbers directly from the office that could be compared later to the website. I also was there to report directly on why any delays or irregularities may have happened.

After the polls closed at 7 p.m., I was expected to call in vote totals every 45 minutes or so.

I also had a task to complete before 7 p.m. relevant to my full-time job with Farmville Newsmedia. I was asked to provide a photo of a voter at one of the polling places in Charlotte County and email that as soon as possible to the office in Farmville.

After I got the photo, I returned to the registrar’s office hoping to use its Wi-Fi to email the photo. Wi-Fi can be used to take advantage of an existing broadband connection, but perhaps due to office policy, neither a reporter for Edison Research nor I were granted access to the Wi-Fi there.

I asked a registrar official where I might be able to find Wi-Fi elsewhere in the county, and a lady referred me to the library in Charlotte Court House.

I hopped in my car and drove a minute or so down the road and took a left and parked at the curb in front of the library. Thankfully, I was able to open my laptop and connect to the library’s Wi-Fi from inside my car, successfully sending the photo, albeit a bit later than I or the office in Farmville had hoped.

When my duties with the AP began after the polls closed, at first, an office phone line was not made available to reporters to use at the registrar’s office, so we had to rely upon our cellphones.

From what I’ve heard, the best cell service to have in Charlotte County is U.S. Cellular. I have Verizon.

For my first call to the AP, I hopped in my car again and managed to find two bars worth of signal strength at a gas station down the road, and I made the call, which had a signal that broke up a little but was mostly fine.

Until then, I had been considering driving back to the library every 45 minutes to use the internet connection there to make my calls to the AP through Google. This still stood in my mind as my best option, since I had my doubts on the reliability of the two bars I could get at the gas station.

However, the registrar’s office let us use one of their office lines for the rest of the night, thankfully, saving me from a night of more short drives to make calls or find internet connections.

My situation that night was not really due to a lack of broadband access, as I was simply barred from it at the registrar’s office.

But the resulting situation put me right in the shoes of rural Virginia residents who do not have broadband. My experience of hunting for a good access point to the internet that was not readily available undoubtedly mirrored theirs and underscored to me the tremendous importance of the work being done to expand broadband in central Virginia.

Titus Mohler is the sports editor for The Charlotte Gazette and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. His email address is Titus.Mohler@TheCharlotteGazette.com.