The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Monday to support internet service provider Shentel in the company’s effort to back out of an obligation to cover a portion of the county with wireless broadband using federal funding.
Shentel’s decision comes as the company declared it would be leaving the wireless internet business and pursue fiber technology. Shentel was supposed to cover 895 homes in the southern portion of the county using federal funds from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).
Now that Rappahannock County is poised for universal fiber-to-home broadband coverage from All Points Broadband using state funds, Shentel’s exit leaves that portion of the county open for coverage from All Points if the county moves forward with the project.
“Shentel has subsequently read the room across the state and has made their various investor calls and have indicated that they are exiting the wireless market and focusing on fiber as well,” said County Administrator Garrey Curry.
In order for Shentel to successfully back out of its obligation and allow for state funding to cover that area of the county, four counties with RDOF awards — Rappahannock, Frederick, Fauquier and Rockingham — must formally declare their support for Shentel seeking a waiver.
“Since the submission of the challenge and award of the application, Shentel has signaled that they do not intend to accept the RDOF award in the four-county area,” a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development wrote in a statement. “Shentel is working to secure letters of support from the four-county area and DHCD to relinquish the RDOF award without penalty, citing a funded solution exists for those areas in which they were preliminarily awarded in the RDOF auction. The process of relinquishing the award is conducted with the Federal Communications Commission and does not involve DHCD.”
The statement goes on to say that “Once the counties have signed the letter of support and all contractual materials have been provided to our office in the pre-contract period, DHCD will fund the original request to [the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission], in partnership with All Points Broadband, to include these areas previously removed from the awarded area on the basis of Shentel's RDOF award.”
Shentel did not return a request for comment.
Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith voted against the declaration, saying she’s disappointed to be walking away from federal funding for a local broadband project. She also said her “mind would be more at ease” if the body was able to talk with Shentel, which they cannot under a “good faith” provision in the All Points agreement that prohibits the Board from communicating with other internet providers.
“I think it's very awkward to walk away from a possibility when we haven't been able to talk about it with that party,” Smith said. Last fall, Smith abstained from a vote that sought to seek state funding for universal broadband from All Points.
Under the obligation of the RDOF application, Shentel was going to provide wireless internet service through 12 towers to be constructed in the southern part of the county. When the state awarded eight counties and All Points Broadband funding through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), Shentel submitted a “challenge,” or a letter requesting that the state not award grant funding to RDOF territories so Shentel could pursue their original project.
In December, Rappahannock County, along with eight other counties, All Points Broadband and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, received about $95 million in VATI funds for All Points to build a fiber network across the eight counties.
The RDOF territory was removed from the county’s award letter, but Shentel has since determined that their corporate strategy does not align with installing wireless internet service and intend to submit a waiver to the Federal Communications Commission to be released from their RDOF obligations.
Curry said that the other three counties are positioned to sign the declaration.