Fewer federal stimulus funds, more complex terrain boosts local share of project funding
In a critical application to obtain state funding for broadband expansion in Northern Virginia, Rappahannock County will be required to procure the most local funding since its share of federal stimulus dollars is smaller than surrounding counties.
The Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) and All Points Broadband, the private provider Rappahannock is poised to partner with to greatly expand internet in the county, are angling to procure $97.2 million through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) to bring universal fiber optic broadband to eight counties across the region.
Three counties in that agreement — Rappahannock, Clarke and Page Counties — must provide match funds that exceed their total federal stimulus allocation through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) because their total stimulus allocations aren’t enough to cover the costs of the project.
Rappahannock received fewer stimulus dollars relative to other counties in the agreement, with a total of just $1.4 million, since its population is smaller than others in the region. The much larger Fauquier County, for instance, is contributing the most to the project with $10.5 million in local funds, while the county received $13.8 million in stimulus.
NSVRC Executive Director Brandon Davis said in an interview that the contributions from each county were determined based on the complexity of the infrastructure that will need to be built. In Rappahannock County, the terrain poses more challenges for installing fiber because of the mountains and spread-out population.
“I know [Rappahannock’s local] match was higher [than its ARPA allocation], which seems counterintuitive, but it does make sense if you think about it from the perspective of the ARPA dollars were distributed based on population,” Davis said. “Places with lower, more spread out, rural populations are harder to serve. Therefore, it's more expensive.”
County officials can use any type of funding to account for their financial stake in the project, but most in the agreement are able to cover their local contribution using only stimulus funds. In Rappahannock County, if the VATI application is granted and the Board of Supervisors follow through in entering into the agreement with All Points, the county would have to commit $5.9 million from its own coffers toward the project. Town of Washington resident Chuck Akre pledged to fund more than half of the price tag the county is on the hook for.
All Points is proposing an installation for any resident in an unserved area for less than $200 for the first 12 months of service, no matter their location in the county. The application defines unserved as “an area with speeds below 25/3 mbps and with less than 25% service overlap within the project area for wireless projects and 10% for wireline projects” — essentially meaning that if an individual does not have access to affordable, high-speed internet, they would be eligible for internet service through All Points.
Localities will not know until December if their applications for state funds are granted, and All Points said the project would be “substantially” complete within 24 months of being awarded the grant and completion of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’ efforts to map where fiber will be supplied.
During meetings with the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and Broadband Authority, All Points CEO Jimmy Carr said VATI grants are more competitive this year than ever since the state increased the fund from $50 million to $700 million. Carr did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report.
Mapping of the project
According to the grant application, the project will extend fiber infrastructure to 42,693 unserved areas across the eight counties.
The network includes about 3,785 miles of fiber, with more than 200 miles of routes within Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s Fiber Utility Network. More than 300 miles will consist of routes within Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s network, about 2,500 miles will be built by All Points and another 660 miles will be built by Dominion.
All Points wrote in their application that it has visited each area proposed to be served to verify that wireline broadband does not currently exist in those locations, but said there is a chance that a small number of locations were incorrectly declared as unserved
Areas of the county that will not be covered by the project include parts of Flint Hill, Washington, Sperryville and Amissville since they’re all already served. But, residents in those areas who do not have high-speed internet can apply for a special installation.
All Points used data from counties’ Geographic Information System mapping (GIS) to cross reference the proposed project area with parcel-specific land use data. There are 40,354 fiber routes categorized as residential, 712 categorized as non-home based businesses and 1,592 categorized non-residential.
Rappahannock County does not have GIS mapping data available that All Points uses, and Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson said it’s his understanding that the company used data from REC, on-site fieldwork and publicly available map data.
County needs your help gathering broadband data
The Rappahannock County government is asking residents to complete a survey to verify whether or not their location has broadband access today. Take the survey here: https://allpointsbroadband.com/rappahannock/
The county recently applied for a state grant to achieve universal fiber-to-the-home broadband to unserved locations. Because state grants are only available in areas that are “unserved” by broadband, as part of the planning effort a list of unserved locations was submitted to the state agency that determines whether broadband service is available.
Several incumbent providers — including Virginia Broadband, Shentel, and CenturyLink/Lumen — have challenged the list of unserved locations in the County by claiming to offer broadband service within areas proposed for grant funding.