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Broadband bonanza: Infusion of money to help across Southwest Virginia

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According to a Botetourt County report on existing Lumos infrastructure, broadband utility cables, labeled with a Comcast tag, are laid underground near Glebe Road at Hollymeade Lane on Tuesday in Daleville.

About $350 million invested in Southwest Virginia’s internet infrastructure will lay the cables to bring tens of thousands of homes online across the region, according to an announcement from the governor’s office.

Statewide, more than $772 million will be allocated from the government for a new round of Virginia’s Telecommunications Initiative grant funding, which will pair with more than $1 billion of private and local investments for internet access projects in 70 localities, according to a news release posted Monday on the website of Gov. Ralph Northam.

Officials like Kevin Byrd, executive director of New River Valley Regional Commission, said the funding is a serious investment in Virginia’s internet infrastructure.

“This is a game-changer for rural communities,” Byrd said during a phone call Tuesday. “Hopefully it levels the playing field for all of our communities and unincorporated areas… everybody will have access to fiber service.”

In Montgomery, Pulaski and Bland counties, more than $135 million worth of high-speed, fiber-optic internet expansion will connect almost 20,000 locations to provide universal broadband access.

Virginia is granting about half of that project’s cost, $68 million, while Appalachian Power Co. and two broadband providers, Gigabeam and All Points, are leveraging $58 million, with the three localities pledging the remainder, said Byrd, whose commission applied for the grant.

“Virginia has made broadband a priority,” Byrd said. “Not every state would have this kind of money be invested, and not every community would have the partners aligned to go do this kind of work.”

Access to affordable, quality internet has in parts of the New River Valley been a limiting factor for people deciding where to live, he said. Broadband expansion has been a commission planning effort since the early 2000s.

“We had a robust plan in 2004 to build fiber all over the New River Valley. Bits and pieces of that have been funded and built,” Byrd said. “But there’s always been this challenge: How do you get to the rural locations, whether that’s homes or businesses?”

What’s different now for the New River Valley is Appalachian Power’s contribution, he said. The company will establish the larger-scale, middle-mile fiber internet infrastructure, used thereafter by broadband providers to connect the last-mile into customers’ homes.

An analogy: The electric company will pave new interstates for internet to travel beyond its former boundaries, enabling broadband providers to then ensure web traffic can flow directly to users’ driveways, and into homes.

“It wouldn’t be possible unless Appalachian Electric Power, or ApCo, was building a fiber network within their service geography,” Byrd said. “That is the major differentiating factor in all this.”

The power company’s new internet endeavors come on the heels of a promising broadband pilot program in Grayson County.

GigaBeam Networks’ first fiber-optic internet customer there, the Elk Creek Volunteer Fire Department, was successfully connected on Tuesday using cables attached to power poles, said Appalachian Power spokesperson Teresa Hamilton Hall during a phone call.

“The plan is to do very similar work,” she said of two additional projects that received state funding. “Building upon the success that we’ve seen with the Grayson County project.”

In addition to the project the power company is contributing to in Montgomery, Pulaski and Bland counties, a second project will cover more than 10,000 locations across Franklin, Henry, and Patrick Counties, at a cost exceeding $95 million, according to documents.

The company will be assessing further options to expand its internet network as appropriate, she said. But Grayson County was seemingly successful, with the first customer connected and more to come.

“We’ve learned a lot with this project. Every step along the way has helped us to get better, to get faster, more efficient with what we’re doing,” Hall said. “We look forward to taking that what we’ve learned and moving it into these next projects.”

The influx of grant money puts Virginia on track to become one of the first states achieving near-universal broadband access of more than 90% connected, with a target date of 2024, according to the announcement release.

Elsewhere, in the Roanoke Valley...

Using nearly $8 million, including $3 million granted from the state, Botetourt County expects to have near-universal internet coverage available by December 2023, after another 1,900 additional households are offered connections.

While incoming fiber-optic internet access won’t appear overnight, it is no less vital to the future, said Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe. In 2017, an estimated 30% of Botetourt’s 16,000 households had no internet, or used overly sluggish connections.

“The next stage… is the question: So what?” Larrowe said during a phone call Monday. “How do we end up being part of the future, rather than part of the past?”

Botetourt County is already thinking on how it might utilize the utility to provide new and improved government offerings for its citizens, and fully embrace the economic development benefits of widespread internet access, he said.

“We can sit on our hands, we can watch Netflix and we can be happy, or we can start planning how we are going to actually utilize this for the true benefit of our children and their families,” Larrowe said. “How do we do things better, faster, cleaner, more efficiently?”

These are some of the questions that other localities across Virginia will similarly contend with, as governments pair with internet providers to put the grant dollars to work by 2024.

Roanoke County received funding for four projects, which will bring almost 1,400 households online at a cost of $7.7 million, with more than $3.7 million granted from the state.

Internet access goes beyond recreational uses, said Bill Hunter, Roanoke County’s director of communications and information technology.

“Not only is this going to bring actual internet, but internet can bring television, it can bring telephone, all of those types of things,” Hunter said. “There are places in the county that don’t have that.”

Internet has essential uses in education, economic development, remote healthcare and so much else, he said. New uses seem to crop up daily.

“I can’t imagine, since the pandemic hit — everybody forced to work at home, go to school at home, talk to their doctor from home — the frustration level,” Hunter said of places without access. “We take it for granted.”

Virginia granted its funds to support 35 projects statewide, using money from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative and the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the governor’s news release said.

Other examples of internet expansion efforts funded in Southwest Virginia include: $28.5 million for fiber broadband in almost 11,000 locations across Lee, Wise and Scott counties; and, $99 million for fiber internet at more than 27,000 locations in Smyth, Washington and Wythe counties.

These just-funded projects will combine with other ongoing public-private efforts to expand the availability of high-speed internet. Cumulative during the past four years, more than $2 billion has been invested statewide on broadband expansion, the governor’s release said.

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