Greene County Record: Broadband on its way to Greene by 2024

GREENE COUNTY RECORD, KATHLEEN BORRELLI

Greene County is on track to establish universal broadband access by 2024 for its residents, thanks to $2 billion in new grants announced by Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday. The new grant programs, announced in conjunction with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger at a Firefly Fiber Broadband press event in Goochland, aim to bring broadband high-speed internet to 90% of Virginians within three years.

“Greene County is thrilled by this announcement,” said Greene County Administrator Mark Taylor when he heard the news.

Gov. Northam said the pandemic highlighted the need for swift and bold action to extend high-speed internet across the state. Monday’s announcement highlighted the combination of state, federal, local and private-sector investments that Virginia has accelerated over the past four years and places Virginia on track to be one of the first states to successfully chart a path to near-universal broadband access.

“Broadband access impacts every facet of our daily lives, from education to business to health care,” Northam said. “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.”

The governor was clear about his goal of achieving universal access to broadband within 10 years when he took office in 2018. At the time, 660,000 Virginians did not have high-speed access. Since then, the state has invested more than $846 million to connect more than 429,000 Virginia homes, businesses and community partners to broadband service. As the governor prepares to leave office next month, he said the state has expanded its funding of telecommunications initiatives from $4 million a year in 2018 to $50 million in the current fiscal year.

In Greene County, it was estimated that 15% of school children did not have the necessary level of internet access to learn remotely when schools were shuttered in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year and a half, great strides were made to deploy hotspots to students and community buildings to help bridge the gap, but it was clear that more permanent solutions would be needed in the long run.

“I am absolutely thrilled our community is receiving this grant as good internet is becoming a necessity in our everyday lives,” said Greene County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh. “The pandemic exposed the extent that universal broadband is needed in many communities in the state, including here in Greene. I am confident this award will greatly benefit our students and their families for educational purposes as well as everyday life.”

Within the TJPD, the project will build a fiber network to 36,283 unserved locations in the next three years.

“This has been several years of hard work,” said Greene County Supervisor Dale Herring (At-Large). “As a board member, I worked on this for six years—(but) it’s been a lot longer than that. When Carl Schmitt was the At-Large Supervisor and he was replaced by Eddie Deane, we were working with the TJPDC to apply for grants for broadband services in Greene County—so that was about 14 years ago.”

The grant bringing broadband to Greene is one of 35 projects announced on Monday. A roughly $79 million grant from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) will be used to leverage an additional $209 million in local government and private investment to expand fiber-optic networks throughout the Thomas Jefferson Planning District (TJPD)—achieving universal coverage for the first time in the counties of Albemarle, Amherst, Appomattox, Buckingham, Campbell, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Powhatan.

The VATI program is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which provides targeted financial assistance to extend broadband service to areas that are currently unserved by a 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 of the proposal. In the 2021 application process, VATI received 57 applications from 84 localities and 25 internet service providers.

The federal funding behind this series of grants comes in large part from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, which the Virginia General Assembly allocated in August.

The $79 million award for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District is in partnership with Firefly Fiber Broadband—a subsidiary of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative—and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC). According to Firefly’s website, the same coop that brought electricity to thousands of Virginians for the first time in 1937 is now bringing high-speed internet to those same communities. Elected officials from each county in the project voted to contribute funds totaling $33.5 million to the effort.

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 customers to the internet.

“Today is a landmark day for broadband in rural central Virginia,” said Gary Wood, president and CEO of Firefly. “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.”

REC president and CEO John Hewa reciprocated his appreciation.

“At Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, our goal has always been to be part of the solution to enable and facilitate broadband to the households and businesses we serve,” he said. “Being able to partner on this endeavor with the counties, Firefly Broadband and Dominion Energy Virginia is a major accomplishment allowing each of us to further the Commonwealth’s goals of making broadband access available to everyone.”

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission was one of the lead applicants for the VATI grant this year.

“The TJPDC is proud to serve as the lead applicant and grant administrator for this super-regional project, covering 13 counties and touching five different planning districts,” said Christine Jacobs, executive director of the TJPDC. “We are grateful for the incredible partnerships that have formed to overcome obstacles to securing universal broadband coverage in our region and look forward to supporting the provision of high-speed fiber internet across the project area.”

Dominion Energy President Ed Baine said the announcement was an exciting step forward in the process of making internet access a reality for all Virginians.

“This is good news and will allow opportunity to all the citizens of Greene,” said Greene County Planning Director and Zoning Administrator Jim Frydl. “The commitment and determination of the Board of Supervisors, especially the leadership of Supervisor Dale Herring on the Broadband Committee, prepared Greene to be ready for an opportunity like this. The experience and proposal from Firefly and REC, along with the Governor’s commitment to expanding broadband, provided the partnership needed to get to this step.”

“To be honest with you, I’m just excited that we’ll have it,” Herring said. “That’s going to put Greene County on the same playing field as any other locality across the commonwealth and across the nation.”

Firefly shared maps of their proposed coverage area, with a three-year build out to reach all communities in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District. CVEC has already been working to install more than 4,500 miles of fiber-optic cables to all of its 38,000 members and plans to complete this expansion in 2022. They recently celebrated a milestone of connecting 10,000 customers in October, utilizing laser beams and glass fibers to move data at speeds of up to one gigabit per second, according to a press release from the coop.

“We’re very fortunate that it’s been a team effort in the past six years,” Herring said. “County administration, former board members, current board members—a lot of people in the community have put this as a priority. In the past year and a half, you’ve really seen what a lack of broadband can do, what kind of impact it can have on people who don’t have it. So it’s been something we’ve been working extremely hard for over the past number of years.”

According to Herring, broadband access will make possible the expansion of small businesses in Greene that have a hard time connecting to their customers. Things like telehealth and online training, previously impossible to set up in Greene due to the less than optimal internet connectivity, will now become a reality. The extreme measures Greene County Public Schools went to in the past year setting up hotspots in local churches and homes—and even at one time deploying a mobile WiFi hotspot via a school bus parked in the Walmart parking lot—will never again be necessary.

“All that’s changed now,” Herring said. “This has been a great day.”

To learn more about Firefly’s Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) Project, visit www.fireflyva.com/rise.

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