Much of the world's Internet traffic might flow through Loudoun County, home of AOL and MCI. But many Loudoun business owners must scramble to find affordable high-speed Internet service, known as broadband.
"Technologically, Loudoun is a county of haves and have-nots," said Brian Chavis, who heads the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce's technology committee. "In some places, you can get all of the broadband you want. But in other places, it's like the end-of-the-railroad analogy. There are certain places where the pipe just stops."
The chamber of commerce recently formed a task force to examine what's ahead for the have-nots -- small businesses in rural areas of Loudoun, for example, where the only high-speed option may be a T1 telephone line costing $500 to $1,000 a month.
"Where is there broadband service in Loudoun County? That's the $64,000 question," said Randy Collins, the chamber's chief executive. "We've got to find out. Right now, the broadband service is all pretty fragmented."
The Loudoun Broadband Coalition, comprising 50 business executives and government leaders, plans to hold a summit this fall and issue a report by year's end.
"It is very ironic -- almost embarrassing -- that it's feast or famine," said Kenneth W. Robinson, chief executive of Leesburg-based Kenrob and Associates, a telecommunications government contracting firm. "And it's almost shameful when you look at the lack of services available for small businesses."
Most businesses in eastern Loudoun, particularly around Washington Dulles International Airport, are in high-speed heaven. And many in Leesburg and Ashburn have no worries, either. They have access to high-speed service delivered by Verizon Communications and other companies through fiber optic cables, a T1 line or digital subscriber line (DSL).
Drive a few miles outside Leesburg, however, and the menu of options narrows.
"You can't just blink your eyes and have fiber optics appear," said Harry J. Mitchell, a Verizon spokesman.
Fast and affordable broadband service is necessary for Loudoun to attract and retain businesses large and small, said Chavis, chief executive of ARGroup Inc., a Leesburg-based technology firm.
Verizon doesn't offer DSL to the building -- near Leesburg Executive Airport -- occupied by the Dulles Area Association of Realtors. So the association gets its high-speed Internet by sharing a wireless service offered by Leesburg-based SkyNet Access with other tenants in the building.
The real estate association's chief executive, Jeanette Newton, said she's happy with the shared service. She pays less than $150 a month. But she wishes she had more choices.
Newton has even fewer options at her home in Waterford, northwest of Leesburg.
"I can't get DSL at home," she said. "I wish I had more options because I would love to work from home more, especially during snowstorms and on weekends when I have a lot of do."
Verizon spokesman Mitchell wrote in an e-mail that the telecommunications company does not offer DSL service in the Waterford, Bluemont, Hillsboro and Upperville areas.
Broadband can't be offered "to everyone quickly" because "it costs money, and it takes resources and time to accomplish. Plus you have to have some hope of recouping your investment." Mitchell wrote.
"We're increasing the availability of broadband in Loudoun County, in Virginia and across our national service area," he added, "but there's only so much time and capital to go around."
Mitchell said Verizon offers DSL service in Leesburg, Lovettsville, Middleburg, Arcola, Ashburn and Purcellville. But even in those communities, he said, service may not be offered to businesses and homes more than three miles from Verizon's call-switching offices.
MCI also offers DSL, but not everywhere in Loudoun. Cable provider Adelphia Communications provides Internet service to homes and small businesses in many areas of the county. But its highest-speed services are not available anywhere in Loudoun, spokeswoman Erica Stull said.
All of which leaves the county's new broadband committee with plenty of things to sort out.
"We hope to end up with a map that'll show you where you can get, for example, T1 and DSL service in the county," Collins said. "Right now, people are confused. Nobody quite knows what's available."