Virginia has been slow to get on the broadband bandwagon.
Rural Broadband Players in Virginia
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative— The firm has started a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project, valued at $5.2 million. They’ve named the initiative the EmPower Broadband Cooperative.
MGW—The company is setting up a tower in Augusta County that will have the capability to reach 450 rural homes that didn’t have broadband before.
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC)—The co-op has unveiled a plan to install fiber optic lines for its customers across its 14-county service area. This plan will increase broadband options and will also allow CVEC to implement smart grid technology that could help lower electrical costs by increasing efficiency.
Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association—The firm’s members include 10 telephone companies and cooperatives. Some of the members are setting up rural broadband networks.
Neighborly–Through Neighborly Securities, the firm offers municipal bonds that support Virginia projects ranging from schools and parks to bridges and highways, as well as broadband.
Two years ago, only 55 percent of homes in rural areas had access to high-speed broadband, according to a Virginia Chamber of Commerce study.
However, that’s changing.
“The state has worked on rural broadband planning with over 30 counties this past year. The counties include Rappahannock, Mecklenburg, King George, Brunswick and Fauquier Counties,” says Kevin May, Director of Marketing and Communications at the state’s Center for Innovative Technology.
The Herndon, Va.-based CIT is a nonprofit corporation that works to accelerate the next generation of technology and technology companies in Virginia.
Industry folks agree.
Virginia continues to make some progress on rural broadband, says Duront Walton, the Executive Director of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association.
“The state has funded a new position for a czar–a point person for all things broadband, but recruitment advertisements for the post have not been placed,” Walton says.
The state’s rural broadband technology initiative is designed to be an agnostic program that’s not going to be vendor- or technology-biased in any particular direction. It is currently doing strategic planning in rural broadband that will enable government officials to arrive at a problem-solution.
The framework is in place to expand rural broadband in Virginia, Walton says.
“We were able to extend the governor’s broadband committee, the Broadband Advisory Council, another 10 years. The committee had been destined to sunset in the summer of 2018. I’m a member of the BAC,” he says. “Politically, most of the legislators in the state whose districts have a rural footprint want to see the advancement of rural broadband funding.
“They [legislators] realize that rural broadband in the state is not going to succeed without some partnerships.”
Financing for the project remains to be seen.
“The current rural broadband budget is tentatively set at $9 million, and that hasn’t been blessed yet by the legislature, so I don’t know how much money will ultimately be approved,” he adds.
“The size of the rural broadband budget for the upcoming biennium is still up in the air; the Senate Finance Committee will consider the legislation in the special session that’s underway, but no date has been set,” says Connor Garstka, an attorney at Virginia Legislative Services.
He tells Icons of Infrastructure that legislators are considering three bills in the special session that cover rural broadband funding.
One agency that helps rural communities in their quest for broadband services is the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
It offers a variety of resources to support broadband development in rural communities through the following programs: GO Virginia, Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, Community Development Block Grant, and Appalachian Regional Commission.
The agency also assists communities with identifying additional state and federal resources like the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and the Center for Innovative Technology. In addition, the agency helps to connect communities to the other state departments working on broadband development.
Partnerships Help Expansion
Craig Smith, President of MGW Telephone and its subsidiary, Lingo, has seen first-hand how partnerships can enable the completion of rural broadband projects. MGW serves customer with high-speed fixed wireless and fiber networks in seven Virginia counties.
“In Augusta County, we did the initiative with the broadband, and the county was very helpful with us to get that grant. MGW is setting up a tower in Augusta County that will have the capability to reach 450 rural homes that didn’t have broadband before,” Smith says. “It [broadband] can be a life-changer via distance learning, medical access and medical diagnostics. Lots of small business is run out of homes—and those business owners got to have Internet access to do it.”
Smith also serves as the president of the VTIA.
A just-awarded grant from the Smart Cities Council will help the state continue its efforts to expand rural broadband. The Smart Cities Council grants include a year of expert mentoring along with an onsite Readiness Workshop series tailored to support specific community needs. A total of four cities and the state of Virginia won the award and grant.
“The state will look for ways to leverage the Smart Cities Council grant, says David Ihrie, chief technology officer at the CIT. “We are looking at this as an ideal opportunity to complement the work already underway, not as a start to a new effort. The work the broadband team has already done provides a fantastic model for outreach to and interaction with communities, particularly the more rural ones.”
Rural areas can have parity with urban communities through broadband projects says Garrett Brinker, president of Neighborly, an organization that helps fund municipal broadband networks and other programs. “We’ve seen, in communities across the country, how rural regions that have built municipal broadband networks are able to start to compete with even the most tech-centric cities. It’s a way for communities to close the digital divide, increase opportunity for all residents, and provide access to opportunity for rural communities on par with larger cities.”
Any effort to make cities and communities more responsive through technology is welcome, says Roberto Gallardo, Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and Community & Regional Economics Specialist at Purdue Extension Service at Purdue University.
“It would be ideal if this Smart Cities Council grant also provided funding to expand digital inclusion in these communities. It will not be of much help if the city offers smart services if its residents are not connected or don’t have the knowledge to leverage these technologies.” Gallardo adds, “Regardless, it is a good project from what I understood in getting communities to become ‘smarter.