Friday, April 14, 2017

Va. weekly wins prize for series, supported by local nonprofit, on lack of broadband and cell signals

Broadband and cell coverage (click image to enlarge)
The weekly Rappahannock News won first place for non-daily investigative reporting in the Virginia Press Association contest for its three-part series, “Digital Dilemma," about lack of action on the broadband- and cellphone-coverage gaps in the county of 7,500. The series led officials to form a volunteer broadband committee to pursue options raised in the series.

"This project takes an effective look—broad and deep—at the kind of digital access so many people take for granted. Breaking the series into past/present, current workarounds and what's next was very effective," judges said. "The writing is detailed and clear; the voices do an able job at helping the reporter tell the story."

Fifteen years ago Sprint proposed erecting seven towers and five years ago AT&T proposed a project that would have provided coverage to about another 20 percent of the county’s households, Randy Rieland reported in the first story in the series. Neither panned out and "the result is that today cell and broadband service in Rappahannock is not much different than it was 15 years ago."

Rappahannock County (Wikipedia map)
Lack of broadband coverage has hurt law enforcement response to emergencies in "dead zones," Rieland wrote in the second story. It also has hurt medical treatment, especially among the county's aging population, and has led to limited use for agriculture, tourism, education—40 percent of the county's students lack broadband at home—and residents who want to do something as simple as accessing the internet at home or on their phone.

The third story by Rieland, looked at the future, and examineed a 2016 county-wide survey sent to every household—that got an unprecedented 42 percent response rate (1,362 out of 3,258)—that found that the top two issues of concern, not surprisingly, were internet service and cell phone coverage. The survey and Rieland's work were funded by the Foothills Forum, a local non-profit that also funded a summer intern to work on series reporting team, which also included the group's chair, Larry "Bud" Meyer" and the chair of the group's advisory committee, former Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander.

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