King George County has put some extra “skin in the game,” as one official described it, in an effort to hasten delivery of broadband service to rural residents who lack high-speed internet connections.
In the spring, the Board of Supervisors signed an agreement with their counterparts in Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland counties on a regional initiative to deliver fiber-optic service to the Northern Neck. As part of the memorandum, each county’s local share would be $345,000.
Partners All Points Broadband, Dominion Energy and Northern Neck Electric Cooperative would contribute the lion’s share of the money—$9 million—and the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, or VATI, would put in $4 million.
Dominion would lay the main line of fiber-optic cable along existing electric lines to provide what’s called “middle line” services, then All Points Broadband would extend the “last mile” of coverage to households. Those who live beyond the coverage of existing service-providers have been told they’d have to pay up to $50,000 to extend the connection to their rural homes, resident Kevin Grego told the supervisors on July 14.
That’s obviously out of the question on a teacher’s salary, he said, adding his family had “exhausted all measures and means” to bring high-speed service to his Shiloh District home. He teaches in Charles County, Md., and in order for him to upload his lesson plans—for virtual learning that will start next month—Grego will have to sit in the parking lot of nearby Round Hill Baptist Church “in order to do my job successfully,” he said.
Supervisors said they understood the dire need for all residents to be connected, especially as the global pandemic has caused a greater need for people to work, get lesson plans or arrange for virtual visits with their doctors.
“Broadband, it was bad before and now during COVID-19, it really hits home,” said Supervisor Jeff Stonehill.
That’s why County Administrator Neiman Young suggested that King George put more money into the Northern Neck plan to speed up the process. He proposed—and the supervisors approved—upping their local share to $500,000. Young said he also discussed the plan with other Northern Neck officials whose counties “are not as financially flush as King George.”
“We’ll contribute a little more to the pot, but King George is going to be the first to have its fiber network,” Young said.
The Northern Neck Planning District and All Points Broadband will apply for the state grant by mid-August. Dominion, which is filing a petition with the State Corporation Commission, also has moved up its filing from December to mid-August.
If the project is approved by the SCC, construction probably would begin in fall 2021 and be completed within a year, according to Dominion officials. Each county’s share of money is to be used in its locality only and not until construction is underway in the particular county, according to the agreement.
The goal of the initiative is to provide what’s known as “25/3 service” to all locations that don’t have it, Supervisor Chair Cathy Binder told fellow members after discussing the plan with the parties involved. That service entails downloads of 25 megabytes per second and uploads of 3 megabytes per second, she said.
It’s not just rural Shiloh District that needs the faster service, Supervisor Annie Cupka said. She read letters from several residents in other districts who aren’t able to download educational packets for their children’s lessons or work from home because of connection problems.
Even residents who have high-speed service are asking that all county residents have the same.
“I find it highly disappointing that in 2020 folks in our county do not have easy access to high-speed internet [which] is not a luxury,” Christine Foshay wrote in a letter to the board. “It’s a necessity and should be brought to our county as soon as possible.”
Cupka had worked for King George as a grant writer and said previous board members weren’t interested in making the necessary local match needed in applying for a state telecommunications grant. She said this opportunity, which pairs the services of established internet providers with electric companies with infrastructure in place, is worth pursuing.
“Localities must contribute to the match to show they have some skin in the game,” she said to fellow board members. “I am grateful to all of you for considering that.”
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