CHARLOTTESVILLE TOMORROW: Local, state, federal officials continue work to enhance rural broadband access

CHARLOTTE WOODS, CHARLOTTESVILLE TODAY

Several state lawmakers, Albemarle County officials, the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and Firefly Fiber Broadband — a subsidiary of the co-op — gathered Thursday at Crozet’s Midway electrical substation to announce plans for expanded fiber optic buildout to enhance rural broadband.

The project is a result of CVEC teaming up with the Albemarle Broadband Authority with a grant from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative to begin the buildout from the substation. The project is one part of broadband expansion efforts in Virginia being championed at the local, state and federal level.

Legislators present at the event included state Sen. R Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Dels. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, and Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. They supported a budget amendment by Gov. Ralph Northam that expanded funds for broadband buildout. 

“It’s incredibly important to build fiber to every home,” Deeds said. “It’s an expensive undertaking. It’s the biggest thing these folks have undertaken since building out an electric system, but it’s important.”

The infrastructure enhancements at Midway are anticipated to bring enhanced broadband access to 680 residents by the spring. It’s one of many projects the CVEC has been working on to serve various counties in central Virginia. 

“We’ve gone after state and federal money,” ABBA Chair Bucky Walsh said.  “In the case of ReConnect, you pretty much have to be a service provider to get ReConnect money.”

Enter CVEC and its Firefly subsidiary, which has other grant applications within Albemarle and other counties.  

The cooperative applied for grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program — whose funding could be bolstered through the House of Representatives. 

In June, Reps. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, and Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, worked to pass a budget amendment that expands ReConnect funding by more than $50 million. 

“Access to broadband affects every aspect of the lives of my constituents,” Spanberger said of her district, which bumps up against the 5th.  

She stressed how lack of access changes opportunities for people in various aspects of their lives. 

“Broadband access impacts everything from the ability of a child in school, the ability of a veteran to get access to telemedicine, the ability of a farmer to update his or her machinery, the ability of our communities to attract businesses,” she said.  

Spanberger and Riggleman’s efforts to enhance ReConnect’s funding can positively impact grant applications from cooperatives like CVEC.

“I think the electric co-ops are the key to us providing service to unserved and underserved populations and rural areas,” Riggleman said. 

With the various levels of effort by officials to expand broadband access, there are still improvements to be made and gaps to fill in. 

According to Melissa Gay, communications and member services manager at CVEC, the eligibility for ReConnect grants states that 90% of residents in a service area must have insufficient access to broadband. 

“Insufficient is defined as 10 megabits per second [downloading] and 1 [Mbps uploading],” Gay said. “It has to be less than that. If you’re looking at a town of 100 and 90% of them had less than that and someone came in on the wireless map and said, ‘Hold on, I serve that,’ they could kick you out of the grant.

“You have to be very careful that if you have a provider already in an area that’s claiming that they offer it, whether they truly are hitting those beats or not, [because] you don’t want it to undo your entire grant. We would love to include everyone who’s left in Albemarle, but the fact is some of Albemarle does have other options, even if it is just 10 [Mbps] and not 10 everyday, but they could get 10 at some point, which could disqualify us from the grant.” 

Spanberger says these eligibility requirements have caused some areas to slip through the cracks in grant applications due to inaccurate mapping. She also made an amendment to the Save the Internet Act which will require the Government Accountability Office to examine the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps. 

“The challenge is the minute you have a high school with broadband internet access in a particular census tract, it basically colors in that map,” Spanberger explained. “It implies that we have internet in a particular place that we may not.”

As Spanberger addresses the mapping issues federally, some state legislators have addressed it in this year’s General Assembly session. 

Legislation by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, gives utility companies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power the ability to create pilot programs to build out connection to underserved areas involving “smart grid” technology. 

“It is efficient for electricity delivery to know more about what’s being used and what’s not, so [utility companies] are installing smart grids, which will be internet information through the electric power lines,” said Bell, who supported the bill. 

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