Virginia plans to build telecom system to boost rural economy

I hope my hometown can start recovering from the collapse of the textile industry.

DANVILLE, Va. — Virginia will build a $12 million fiber-optic network throughout its struggling manufacturing belt along the North Carolina state line to spark an economy decimated by factory layoffs.

Gov. Mark R. Warner said Friday the project will connect five cities, 20 counties and 56 industrial parks with a new communications network that will be the largest publicly funded system in the state.

“Being left off the information superhighway is just not something rural communities can afford to overcome,” Warner said.

State officials hope the project, known as Regional Backbone Initiative, will eventually create 1,500 jobs and lure $143 million in private investment to the region. It is funded with $6 million of Virginia’s share of tobacco settlement money and a $6 million federal grant.

When the network is completed in two years, a private nonprofit management agency called Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative is expected to offer Internet service to businesses at a 20 percent discount.

Service providers also will be allowed to connect with the network at a reduced price in hopes that they will pass the savings along to customers, said Mid-Atlantic’s interim general manager, Tad Deriso.

Virginia’s “Southside” manufacturing region has been ravaged by thousands of factory layoffs during the past decade.

The labor market area that includes Henry and Patrick counties and the city of Martinsville had an average unemployment rate of 14 percent in 2002 and 2003, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. It jumped as high as 16 percent in July.

Community leaders see telecommunications capability as the key to jump-starting the region’s lagging economy. They believe a massive Internet network would do as much to lure companies to the region as a major interstate or airport.

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