‘What had been an important need has become a critical one’
Talk to almost anyone involved with enhancing broadband service in rural communities and you hear the same thing over and over: The pandemic has flipped on a flashing red light.
They see students in their schools struggling to keep up with distance learning assignments, people with medical issues not able to connect to telehealth appointments, community residents frustrated with failed Zoom calls with family, friends and co-workers. What had been an important need has become a critical one.
That certainly was the impetus for Rappahannock’s Board of Supervisors to vote last month to create a broadband authority. Unlike the county’s broadband committee, the authority will have spending power and can apply for federal and state grants.
Within the next few days, it should have a clearer picture of its path forward when the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) reveals if it has received a grant from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), and what its plans are for extending broadband in the region.
A commitment from the REC to expand fiber optic internet connections in its service area could be a big first step as the county addresses its broadband limitations. But even with a positive REC response, Rappahannock residents shouldn’t expect a quick fix. While fiber is considered the fastest and most reliable connection, it’s also the most expensive type of network to build, and not a realistic option in more remote areas. The region’s rocky, rolling terrain presents other challenges.
In short, says Clint Hyde, solving the rural broadband dilemma can be an uphill slog. Hyde is the president of Madison Gigabit Internet, a broadband service provider, and he did a presentation for Rappahannock’s broadband committee last summer.
“You need to have technical knowledge. You need money. And you need will power,” he said. “That trifecta is hard to pull off.”
Going their own way
Like most rural communities, Orange County officials had little luck convincing internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon to become partners in creating a broadband network. Instead, they heard what’s become a familiar refrain — there weren’t enough potential customers to justify the investment.
So last summer, the Orange County Broadband Authority made a bold move. It became its own ISP, called FiberLync, and went into the business of building out and selling connections to high-speed internet service.
Now it’s overseeing an ambitious three-year plan designed to ultimately deliver fiber access to about 6,000 households, which would cover 75 percent of the county’s residents. The estimated cost: $10 million, most of which will be borne by the county, although it hopes to get help from federal and state grants. That’s in addition to $3.5 million previously spent on building a core fiber network.
Homeowners will need to cover a connection cost of $480, which can be paid at a rate of $20 a month over two years. There’s an additional one-time fee of $1.50 per foot if a service line longer than 1,000 feet is required.
Very few broadband authorities in Virginia have gone as far as starting their own ISPs. In addition to the expense, that also means taking on customer service and other administrative responsibilities. FiberLync will contract out that part of its business.
But the Orange County supervisors felt they weren’t having much luck pursuing other options, and given the pressing broadband needs in the community, they decided to go their own way.
For Lewis Foster, the county’s broadband program manager, consistently reliable internet service is now a key to sustaining places like Orange County. “With good broadband, rural communities can thrive again,” he said. “It increases property values and improves the quality of life. If you don’t build your tax base and develop a place for kids growing up, you’re going to be a desert.”
Several years ago, supervisors in Louisa County east of Charlottesville, wanted to get a sense of what it would cost to bring fiber broadband to every home in the county. An internal estimate came to more than $100 million. Another from the FCC was less costly, but still about $60 million.
So they moved on to Plan B, opting to erect 10 wireless broadband towers. But the slightly more than $1 million allocated for the initiative was able to cover only the cost of five broadband and two public safety towers. The dream of all-fiber broadband in the county seemed just that: A dream.
But early in 2018, that prospect brightened when the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) announced it would begin hooking up its customers with fiber broadband, including those in Louisa. To that end, it launched a subsidiary called Firefly Fiber Broadband.
Firefly is now in the process of connecting 3,500 households in the county to high-speed internet, with no extra charge. The monthly fee ranges from $50 to $80.
It’s a $12 million project, and initially the cooperative asked Louisa to contribute 10 percent of the cost. It demurred, and instead offered CVEC a tax abatement of up to $550,000 over five years.
Still, according to Bob Hardy, Louisa’s director of information technology, Firefly’s efforts will cover only a fifth of the homes in the county. To entice more ISPs to follow suit in other parts of the community, the county has committed to kicking in $15 million.
“That $15 million is amazing to me,” Hardy said. “The goal is still to get fiber to everybody.”
Going the last mile
In Culpeper County, the supervisors likewise say they want to get fiber connections for as many of their residents as possible. But first they’ll need to take an interim step.
Next month, Culpeper is expected to sign a contract with Leesburg-based All Points Broadband (APB) to temporarily outfit 10 existing towers with wireless equipment and also to erect 13 micro towers (less than 100 feet tall). That would, according to APB, provide wireless broadband service to roughly 90 percent of the 4,300 unserved homes in the community. The cost to the county would be $3.2 million.
The contract is for three years, and the thinking is that during that time, All Points — and possibly other ISPs — working off a core network created by Dominion Energy, will begin making the “last-mile” fiber connections to households. At this point, there’s been no discussion of a specific financial contribution the county would make.
The Culpeper supervisors also are considering creating a broadband authority. To date, efforts to expand internet service in the county have been coordinated by the county’s special projects administrator, Laura Lovelady. She admits that the cycle of starts and stops has been frustrating.
“Culpeper has gone after every opportunity,” she said. “We’ve tried to adapt, but we’ve been largely unsuccessful.”
But the spike in federal and state grant money for rural broadband has made her hopeful that the tide is turning. “The momentum is there,” Lovelady said. “The pandemic has brought a shift, and it seems we’ve finally reached a place where we’ll be able to achieve something.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re pushing a rock up the hill any more.”
A fresh start
That momentum shift comes at a time when Rappahannock County, with its new broadband authority, is in the early stages of shaping its own strategy.
It certainly helps that more and more rural electric cooperatives are expanding fiber optic networks, including some, such as Central Virginia, that have created subsidiaries that connect fiber to homes. That’s why the upcoming announcement of Rappahannock Electric’s plans could be pivotal in determining how quickly the county’s broadband authority gets out of the gate.
And it doesn’t hurt that the consensus at the federal, state and local government levels is that something must be done now about providing reliable broadband to rural residents. Consider that when it launched its Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) in 2017, the state awarded grants totaling $1 million to pay for internet connections to homes. This fiscal year, it will dole out $50 million.
At the federal level, the FCC, through its RDOF program, gave out about $239 million over 10 years to broadband providers for projects in Virginia last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded another $48 million in the state.
But the competition for grant money also has intensified. Tamarah Holmes, the broadband director in the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said that in the last round of VATI grants, when $19 million was awarded, her office received requests totaling $105 million.
“We heard from counties we never heard from before,” she said.
Since VATI grants can only be spent on “last-mile” broadband connections, the money couldn’t be used to pay for front end projects, such as a detailed engineering study to determine what kind of broadband service is the best option in different parts of the county.
While ideally county officials would like to see as much fiber access as possible, the reality is that broadband in Rappahannock will likely remain a tiered mix of fiber, fixed wireless and satellite. Another reality is the strong sentiment here that the county’s viewscape shouldn’t be blemished with tall towers.
“Moving forward on this is a high priority for the county,” said BOS chair Debbie Donehey, who also is a member of the county’s broadband committee. “For the survival of a rural county, I believe that connectivity is up there just below fire and rescue.”
That said, Donehey also thinks it’s important to manage expectations. “I don’t want people to think that just because we now have a broadband authority that we’re going to have something in a month,” she said. “We have to make sure that we think things out, and spend our money wisely.
“A lot of balls are in the air, and the risk is that you catch the wrong one.”