The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and Broadband Authority voted on Tuesday to continue forward into phase 2 of their agreement with All Points Broadband that could greatly expand internet service in the county.
All Points estimates the project to cost $19.5 million, with two proposed routes the county can take with a potential broadband project.
The bodies agreed on a regional approach to installing fiber after county resident Chuck Akre pledged $3.5 million to the project to help ease the county’s cost burden. Akre is the owner of the land where Rush River Commons is expected to be developed in Washington, which is scheduled for a public hearing on Sept. 13.
The regional initiative includes All Points, Dominion Energy Virginia, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and seven participating counties.
“My family is hereby offering to guarantee $3.5 million towards the complete rollout of broadband to all unserved residents of the county who wishes to be ‘wired,’” Akre wrote in his letter to Donehey, the chairperson of the Board of Supervisors.
In the regional approach, All Points would secure $6.5 million of the total project cost, and a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant could provide $6.9 million if the county’s application is approved. The county would have to contribute $5.9 million, about a third of the total project cost, and would be eligible for funds through the federal pandemic relief dollars.
Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish, and Wakefield Supervisor Debbie Donehey voted in favor of moving forward with the agreement, Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier voted against the agreement and Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith abstained.
Smith said that she “doesn’t mind moving onto phase 2” of the project, but said that before moving onto phase 3 — when the board will become locked into the contract — the bodies should discuss other options for broadband, like expanding Starlink, a satellite-delivered internet service developed by Elon Musk.
“My position is that we would probably be better served to forge something with Starlink now and go in it alone instead of waiting for this regional approach where we're going to come in dead last as always,” Smith said.
Members also expressed concern about how much of a potential burden a broadband project on county taxpayers. Lonnie Hamilton, a planner with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Broadband, said that it could be possible to only tax the residents who will be receiving internet services under All Points.
More than a dozen community members spoke during the public hearing portion. While almost everyone agreed that the county needs to address its lack of universal broadband, there were mixed opinions for how it should be done.
Bill Fletcher, a long-time resident of Rappahannock County, said that before the county commits to spending money on the project, officials should first consider how many people in those unserved homes actually want better internet.
“I don't know how this community as a whole would feel about this $6 million project, however it’s funded,” Fletcher said. “Yeah, you get grant money. But we've got more important issues I think this county is facing right now.”
Judy Hope, 80, Hampton District, said that she supports moving forward with All Points because she wants to see the county retain more young people and families, and said the county could wither without them.
“So this is a great chance for us to save the county with the kind of vision that decades and centuries ago the Fletcher's and others had,” Hope said. “This is a chance to maintain the beauty of this county and the youth of this county.”
Donehey and Parrish both said that this agreement with All Points to bring universal broadband to the county is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
“We've been given many years to look into the problem, and we're all under the agreement that there is a problem,” said Donehey. “And I think when we vote today, it's really for the safety of the citizens, the education of our students.”
The meeting was held as a continuation of last week’s regularly scheduled meeting where the bodies (made up of the same public officials) were unable to reach a consensus on how to proceed with a potential development, citing the cost as a significant barrier to entry.