Broadband Authority could choose to partner with a commercial provider as early as July 22
Three internet service providers responded to the Rappahannock County Broadband Authority’s official request for information (RFI) last week, bringing the county one small step closer to procuring broadband for unserved areas.
The authority sent the RFI to 13 commercial providers in late June in the hopes of identifying a partner to develop the county’s broadband network. Partnering with a provider will allow the county to apply for federal and state grants which are unavailable to localities on their own.
The next step is for the broadband authority to review the responses at a meeting on Thursday, July 22, and then select a partner. The authority may move swiftly, given an approaching state funding deadline. The county has until July 27 to declare interest in funding from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), a pool of more than $50 million earmarked for broadband projects. Since 2018 Virginia has invested more than $73 million in broadband, connecting more than 76,000 Virginians, according to the governor. To obtain funding in the next cycle, localities and their partners must submit their applications by Sept. 14, 2021.
In its RFI, the county asked that providers be able to deliver speeds of 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload and aim to provide coverage to 97 percent of unserved Rappahannock residents within 18 months.
Piedmont Broadband, Rappahannock’s local provider, did not submit a response to the RFI. At the broadband authority’s regular meeting, Piedmont’s new co-owner, Richard Pate, who has been on the job only two weeks, said he believed it simply wasn’t a good fit for his company. “My job is to take [Piedmont] to the next level … [but] it takes time. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not comfortable agreeing to the speed and percentage of coverage within 18 months,” Pate said.
All Points Broadband
One of the respondents to the broadband authority’s RFI, All Points Broadband, recently won $10.2 million from VATI to build a network in Northern Neck and has also partnered with King William and Pulaski counties. All Points, a rural broadband provider with an office in Leesburg that describes itself as a “turn-key partner,” proposed a universal fiber broadband network to deliver high-speed internet to unserved locations in Rappahannock.
In its response to the RFI, All Points identified nearly 2,400 locations in the county that are currently unserved and pledged to “comprehensively identify those areas which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has incorrectly designated as served and visit and visually inspect all areas that All Points identifies as unserved to confirm the availability or lack of broadband infrastructure at each location in those areas.”
All Points also furnished a partnership agreement with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in which the coop expressed a willingness to deliver “middle-mile” infrastructure to the county. All Points further added that the county’s out-of-pocket match would not exceed 20 percent of the network cost.
Earlier this year, Shenandoah Telecommunications Company won a grant from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to build a $1.2 million broadband project in southern Rappahannock County that will provide coverage to 895 homes within the next six years. Shentel responded to the county’s RFI, proposing to expand its service beyond the RDOF territory. “Shentel is currently exploring partnerships with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) to help support this RDOF-funded fixed wireless buildout,” the company said in its response to the county’s RFI. “Shentel proposes exploring a partnership with Rappahannock County and REC to upgrade the service of many RDOF locations from fixed wireless to Fiber to the Home (FTTH).”
The company wrote that while Shentel is “unable at this point to entertain a true universal buildout in Rappahannock County at this time,” a partnership could still result in connectivity for many more homes. Shentel did not provide an estimated number.
The final respondent to the county’s RFI was Madison Gigabit Internet based in Madison County. “MGI is not proposing to attempt a VATI submission in 2021. The deadline is too close, with only 60 days available,” the company wrote. “MGI’s casual cost estimate is that county-wide FTTH [fiber to the home] will cost up to $25 million to build, $1 million/year to operate, and have revenue between $2 and 3 million per year.”
MGI indicated that it did not have the capacity to conduct its own study of underserved areas and suggested that the Rappahannock County Broadband Authority would have to do that legwork. The three-year-old company applied jointly with both Madison and Orange counties for infrastructure funding through VATI but was not successful either time.
The Rappahannock County Broadband Authority will review its options for VATI partnerships on Thursday, July 22, at 6 p.m. in the Rappahannock County Courthouse, 250 Gay Street.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that All Points is owned by Akre Capital Management, the Middleburg-based asset management firm operated by Rappahannock County resident Chuck Akre. In fact, Akre recently sold his stake in the firm.