BERRYVILLE — Comcast wants Clarke County’s help to obtain state funds to expand high-speed Internet service to parts of the county lacking it.
Company executives asked the Clarke County Board of Supervisors on Thursday to participate in a joint 2019 Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) project. The application deadline is just a little more than a month away, but the board made no commitment, instead asking county staff members to further explore the idea.
High-speed Internet — sometimes referred to as broadband, although that term technically applies to specific standards of service — is largely unavailable in Clarke County outside of its two incorporated towns, Berryville and Boyce.
The county is largely rural, and Internet providers say it is hard for them to justify the cost of extending service to less-populated areas where they may not receive enough new customers to enable them to recover their expenses.
In September, the county announced that four wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) were interested in establishing new broadband connections countywide. The county is considering zoning ordinance amendments to rules for communications towers that officials believe would help the effort.
However, supervisors Vice Chairman Bev McKay recently said he sensed that interest among those service providers has declined.
Comcast wants to extend Internet to homes via fiber-optic lines, Nathan Daugherty, the company’s government affairs manager for central and southern Virginia , told the supervisors during Thursday’s work session.
McKay asked whether WISPs would be able to connect to Comcast’s system. Daugherty indicated no because the company would own the system.
VATI, a program of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, provides financial aid to private broadband service providers to extend service to areas not served by any provider.
According to the department’s website, a total of $4 million is available for providers for the 2019 cycle.
Amounts awarded to specific providers will be based on the quality of the projects they propose and the number of applications received.
Applications must be submitted by local government units on behalf of service providers, which will be considered co-applicants, no later than Dec. 14.
Tom Judge, the county’s joint administrative services director, said the county would receive any funds provided by VATI and then turn the money over to Comcast, a provider of both cable television and Internet services in the Shenandoah Valley.
Daugherty declined to elaborate on what an extension of high-speed Internet service by Comcast might entail.
He said that any details released publicly might hurt the competitiveness of any application submitted.
Comcast executives indicated, though, that the company first would target the White Post area that McKay represents as a supervisor.
Despite being unincorporated, White Post is a somewhat heavily populated area. Paul Combs, director of government and community affairs for Comcast’s Blue Ridge Region, said the area is being targeted initially basically because it was the first one that popped into executives’ minds, considering the short time frame in which to apply for a VATI grant.
He said other parts of the county could be targeted in the future if funding is made available.