Goochland Gazette: New grants will pave way to universal broadband access

GOOCHLAND GAZETTE, ROSLYN RYAN

County residents living in areas of Goochland without reliable access to broadband internet service may soon have an opportunity to get connected, with the announcement by Governor Ralph Northam on Monday that his administration will award $79 million in Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grants to Firefly Fiber Broadband.

Firefly, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and its partner Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), have undertaken a $288 million project to bring universal access to gigabit speed broadband service to 36,000 unserved homes and businesses in 13 counties in Central Virginia.

Elected officials from each county in the project voted to contribute funds, totaling $33.5 million.

During a board meeting on Sept. 7, county supervisors voted unanimously to participate in Firefly Fiber Broadband’s Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) project, which includes a 2022 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) broadband grant application and local matching funds of up to $3,637,500, money that will come from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The RISE project is comprised of Firefly Fiber Broadband, Dominion Energy Virginia, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), and the localities of Albemarle, Amherst, Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Powhatan.

The fiber construction will take approximately three years to complete and will include 4,000 miles of fiber. Dominion Energy Virginia will support the extension of broadband to unserved areas by deploying middle-mile fiber that Firefly will use to connect end-customers to the internet.

The announcement was made Monday afternoon by the governor at Goochland’s Fire Rescue Station 6 to a group of county officials, local and elected officials, directors, supervisors, first responders, business partners, and Firefly employees.

“Broadband access impacts every facet of our daily lives, from education to business to health care,” said Northam. “It’s a necessity for navigating today’s digital world, and this new funding will close Virginia’s digital divide with universal broadband by 2024.”

Senator Mark Warner, Senator Tim Kaine, and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger participated in the presentation and spoke about the profound impact Firefly’s plans for universal broadband will have on the 13 counties included in the proposal.

Gary Wood, Firefly president and CEO, called the occasion, “a landmark day for broadband in rural central Virginia.”

“Thanks to the critical funding provided by the federal government and made available through the VATI program, we can now assure that every family and business in central Virginia will have access to reliable, affordable internet service equivalent to the best in the United States. We appreciate the hard work and support of Governor Northam, Senator Warner, Senator Kaine and Representative Spanberger as well as the support of the supervisors in each of the partner counties.”

Administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development, VATI provides targeted financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas that are unserved by an internet service provider. Projects were selected through a competitive process that evaluated each project for demonstrated need and benefit for the community, applicant readiness and capacity, and the cost and leverage of the proposed project. The level of funding awarded is based on infrastructure needs.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission served as the lead applicant for the grant application.

Firefly’s Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) Project was launched this year to expand broadband to parts of 13 counties, making high-speed internet accessible to more than 45,000 locations and 112,000 Virginians. The RISE project includes 5,000 miles of fiber construction and will cost $330 million to complete. The project will be executed by partnering with other area utilities to complete the fiber build, using funds secured from the VATI grants and county contributions to aid with construction costs. For more information about the RISE Project, visit http://www.fireflyva.com/rise.

Firefly is also the internet service provider (ISP) for the CVEC fiber build, a $130 million plan to install over 4,500 miles of fiber-optic cable in the 14 counties it serves, providing broadband internet access to all of its 38,000 members. The fiber network will be completed in 2022 and uses laser beams and glass fibers to move data at speeds of up to one gigabit per second, delivering world-class communications to CVEC members served in their electric territory. The fiber-optic network will be installed on and adjacent to existing overhead and underground electric distribution lines, utilizing the existing infrastructure. Firefly celebrated a milestone of connecting 10,000 customers in October.

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