Powhatan Today: Powhatan strives to bridge the ‘digital divide’

POWHATAN TODAY, LAURA MCFARLAND

Powhatan’s local, state, and federal elected representatives gathered last week to celebrate a recent initiative that should see county residents fully served with broadband internet within the next three years.

On Tuesday, Sept. 14, the county held a press conference attended by Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Del. Lee Ware, R-65, as well as all five supervisors and one school board member.

The purpose was to highlight Powhatan County’s efforts to extend broadband coverage to all of its residents and businesses through partnerships with Dominion Energy and Firefly Fiber Broadband.

On Aug. 23, the board of supervisors unanimously approved a partnership with Firefly and Dominion to provide broadband to unserved areas. The decision came with a commitment to put at least $3 million in American Rescue Plan funds toward the project and an authorization to increase that to $5.3 million if the project doesn’t win the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grants it is seeking.

If successful, VATI grant funds would be used to offset nearly 30% of the cost for Firefly to build fiber in the county. The remaining 70% would be funded between Powhatan County and Firefly.

The local efforts are part of a much larger $300-million project helmed by Firefly, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. Firefly’s Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) project aims to provide access to reliable, affordable internet to all underserved homes and businesses across 13 counties in Central Virginia, including Powhatan and Cumberland counties.

In Powhatan, Firefly president and CEO Gary Wood said previously the company plans to lay 192 miles of fiber optic cable, mostly in the western and northern parts of the county, which are severely underserved. This project has the potential to serve 2,016 “unserved passings,” which could either be commercial or residential customers, without access to speeds faster than 25 mbps download or 3 mbps upload.

Getting a project of this scale to make broadband universally available in Powhatan took the work of many hands, from building the infrastructure to finding the funding and keeping the momentum going to see it to fruition, Wood said.

As part of the partnership, Dominion Energy, which serves part of Powhatan, agreed to install fiber in rural areas as it moves forward with efforts to transform Virginia’s energy grid. This fiber capacity can be used for operational needs as well as broadband access, reducing broadband deployment costs for internet service providers. Under the agreement, Firefly will lease the “middle-mile” fiber installed by Dominion Energy in the company’s electric service area.

As a regulated electric service provider, Dominion Energy has a duty to provide electricity to everyone in its service territory, which puts the company in a unique position to help solve the broadband gap, said Diane Leopold, Dominion Energy’s chief operating officer.

“By using fiber capacity for both grid operational needs and broadband access, we can lower the cost of providing broadband for internet service providers,” she said.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Karin Carmack, who represents District 5, praised Spanberger, Hashmi, and Ware for their efforts in their respective roles to champion the need for rural broadband and also thanked Firefly and Dominion for their roles in making broadband a possibility to residents who have no options. She also praised her fellow board members and key Powhatan staff members who have made broadband a top priority not only in word but in action.

“What does this day mean for our citizens? It means by 2024, 97% of Powhatan County will be served by high speed internet and work will begin within three months,” she said.

Powhatan, along with many other localities involved in this project is celebrating the “closing of the digital divide” with efforts like this, Spanberger said. This will have a tremendous impact and “pay tremendous dividends in terms of job opportunities, innovation, economic growth.”

“Certainly the lack of broadband connectivity hurts the abilities of students to complete their homework, business to recruit and hire new employees, and farmers to take advantage of the latest high-tech precision ag equipment,” Spanberger said.

Spanberger also lauded the supervisors’ choice to use American Rescue Plan funds for this project, which is “exactly what we had in mind when we decided to invest in our nation’s economic recovery and turning the page with COVID.”

While serving on Virginia’s Advisory Council, Hashmi said the members have heard from so many educators, parents, small business owners, and local government officials about the urgent need for broadband access, most especially in rural communities.

“Too many Virginians have had to find their way to parking lots, public libraries, or fast food restaurants simply to access the internet in order to complete homework assignments, communicate, or reach access to critical resources, especially during this pandemic,” Hashmi said. “This is absolutely unacceptable in the 21st Century in America, and I thank Dominion resources and Firefly and the work of our county supervisors and school board officials for helping to ensure that effective broadband access will be the reality now for all of our county residents.”

While Ware touched on the legislature’s efforts to streamline the process of getting funding to broadband projects, he also talked about the personal stories he has heard from constituents that show why this project means so much. He spoke of a small businessman in Powhatan who couldn’t use credit cards because he can’t get online dependably enough. He also talked about an older woman whose landline quality is diminishing and she lives in an area without cell phone coverage. He said it is “voices like that that echo for me” when he thinks about why they gathered together to celebrate last week.

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