Members of the Rappahannock County Broadband Authority are concerned about the lack of details found in the long-awaited contract from All Points Broadband and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) that was expected to outline specifics of a potential universal internet expansion project in the county
In a special meeting on Monday, the body took a first look at the contract, which it received last week along with other adjoining documents from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
As a part of an eight-county agreement, Rappahannock County was awarded state funding in December for All Points Broadband to build a universal fiber network, on the condition that the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors provide $5.9 million of the county’s money toward the project.
County Administrator Garrey Curry outlined in a memorandum some of his initial concerns about the contract:
The contract does not specify exactly what locations in Rappahannock will be eligible for service. Representatives from All Points and NSVRC pitched the project as a “whole jurisdiction approach,” but the contract does not define what “universal” broadband will look like.
The contract states that during the first 12 months service is available in a locality, installing fiber to your home will be a flat rate of $199, no matter the length of the fiber drop. But, the contract does not state how much installation will cost after that 12 month period.
The contract also states the $199 fee will be for “residential locations.” Curry wrote that the $199 fee should be available for all locations.
“Basic tier” monthly service will be a fixed rate of $59.99, only to be indexed for inflation. Curry wrote “there is inadequate detail regarding how the consumer price index (CPI) will be applied…There needs to be more than a general reference to ‘CPI’ as it is a very broad and geographically varied index.”
There are no penalties in place if All Points and NSVRC fail to operate the system after installation is complete. It is also not clear what party would be responsible to recoup county investments in the event of a failed project.
Sharon Pandak, a Fairfax-based attorney the body hired to analyze the document, said Monday that All Points and NSVRC seem unwilling to change any language of the contract. Pandak said she can potentially negotiate amending the document to answer more of the body’s questions.
For the county to receive the state funding, and by extension universal broadband, the Board of Supervisors must sign the contract with All Points and NSVRC by May 5, but Wakefield Supervisor and Chair Debbie Donehey has said during public meetings that the deadline could potentially be extended. However, Curry said there is pressure coming down from the state to push the project forward.
“If I were you, I'd be the last to sign this and see what every other county squeezes out through the mill, and you can be flexible enough to call a meeting whenever you need to call the meeting to [vote],” Curry told the authority on Monday.
Over the last month, Curry has reached out to the other seven counties in the regional agreement to see if the other localities wanted to work together to advocate for potential shared interests. But none of the other counties were interested, he said.
“Rappahannock County finds itself in a position of the tail trying to wag the dog and I naively thought that our shared interest with the seven other counties would provide leverage, but the other counties have not shown a willingness to engage to exert that leverage,” Curry wrote in the memo.
Wakefield Supervisor and Chair Debbie Donehey said Rappahannock will likely be one of the last localities to vote on a contract, since the Board of Supervisors next regularly scheduled meeting is May 2 and the current deadline to sign a contract is May 5.
“What will be interesting is our peers, the other counties, most of them will meet before we do on [May 2], so we'll be able to see if they've brought up any other concerns or if they've signed [the contract],” Donehey said. “It's nice to kind of be late at the signing point to just be able to hear what else is being brought up.”
While members of the body were hesitant to say how they plan to vote on the contract, others, like Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson and Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Van Carney, said they still intend to move forward in supporting it.
Whitson and Carney said their biggest concern was the lack of definition for what “universal coverage” in Rappahannock will look like, along with the fact that All Points has yet to present detailed maps of where exactly the company plans to provide service.
“I know our county and all the little lanes and hollows and it worries me when you have someone without local knowledge coming in and putting down pretty significant infrastructure like this,” Whitson said. “You could imagine a scenario where people might be skipped over and so whatever we need to do to make sure that doesn't happen … I think we should do.”
Whitson said that once those details are straightened out, he won’t delay the project and hopes to see people in Rappahannock with All Points service in a relatively short period of time. It is still unclear when installation and construction would begin, and which locality would be the first to receive service.
Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier has been an outspoken skeptic of the project since All Points CEO Jimmy Carr pitched the proposal to the Board of Supervisors last summer. In an interview, Frazier said: “I basically have been right all along,” arguing that the company has yet to answer for the many concerns about the project that he and Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith, another skeptic of the proposal, have raised over the past year.
“It's the most bizarre thing that I've ever seen our county be involved in, and for that matter, probably the most bizarre thing in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Frazier said of the project.
He said the strangest piece of the contract to him is that there are no safeguards outlined for localities investing money into the project, and nothing in the document that explicitly requires All Points to finish the project once started. Frazier said he does not support the contract as it currently stands, but would not say whether he will ultimately vote to oppose it.
“The current agreement fails to address our concerns for consumer protections and service guarantees,” Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith wrote in a statement. Smith abstained from a vote last fall to apply for state funding with All Points. “There’s no cap on the county’s investment and there’s no guarantee of service. Any contract must make it clear that cost overruns due to inflation or supply line issues cannot fall back on the county. Expectations for the service’s roll-out, key milestones, and project oversight should be concrete and quantifiable. Also, the service area maps and eligibility descriptions are not clear.”
Much of the Supervisors’ financial end of the deal has been covered by federal stimulus dollars and private donations, with $315,000 left to cover. The Board of Supervisors set up a private donation portal through the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation for private parties to make individual contributions. The Supervisors have maintained that the cost of the project will not be funded by taxpayers.
Here are other key takeaways from the 23-page contract, which can be viewed online at rappnews.link/fa0:
All Points agrees to make available a broadband internet service plan offering upload and download speeds of 50 mpbs (the “Basic Service Tier”) for a monthly fee of $59.99. The company agrees that the monthly service fee for the Basic Service Tier shall not increase by more than the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index, published by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Property owners will be notified that they are eligible for installation by All Points through All Points’ “advertisements.”
All Points will be responsible for maintaining all installed infrastructure.
For a period of five years following the completion of the project, All Points agrees to allow NSVRC to inspect the internal quality control and quality assurance records maintained by the company.