Governor announces deal for universal broadband 

Published 7:21 pm Monday, December 13, 2021

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Western Tidewater to receive more than $21 million

Suffolk, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County will receive just over $21.1 million toward universal broadband efforts through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant program.

It’s part of a $2 billion grants deal Gov. Ralph Northam announced Dec. 13 in Goochland County that he said would bring high-speed internet to 90% of state residents and put Virginia “on track” to being one of the first states to provide universal broadband access.

Private and local investments account for more than $1 billion, along with more than $846 million the state has already invested and another $722 million as part of the most recent announcement.

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The grant money for Western Tidewater is part of a joint VATI application by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, Charter Communications and the three localities. Combined with funding from each of the localities and Charter, they’ll have an additional $14.5 to go toward universal broadband access — $6.7 million from the three localities and $7.8 million from Charter.

“Obviously, this is extremely good news and the result of a lot of effort on behalf of the city staff and collaboratively with some of the localities,” said Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman, who was among a number of people who wrote letters of support for the VATI application. “And as we’ve discussed broadband before, it’s a matter of taking advantage of all the options that were available to us, all the possibilities that were available to us with regards to funding, and this is a direct result of those efforts, and it’s going to be very welcome news.”

The regional project, supported by Primis Bank through the Commonwealth Connect Fund, will build fiber broadband to 12,223 unserved locations and provide coverage in Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton. The VATI grant leverages Charter’s existing service with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund area. The VATI application had asked for nearly $22.8 million.

As part of the deal, the commission will be the fiscal agent for the project and be a liaison between the localities, Charter and state Department of Housing and Community Development, which handles the VATI program. Charter, meanwhile, is to provide the commission with any required information to manage the grant, including progress reports and monthly invoices, and it will have to provide any required documents for zoning and permit applications to the localities.

Charter will be designing, engineering and building the broadband services as outlined in the VATI application, and will guarantee minimum bandwidth offerings to be no less than what the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband as of the date the project begins. The company will also own everything paid for through the VATI grant.

The service will offer four, symmetrical internet speed tiers — 30/4 Mbps (megabits per second upload/download speeds), 200/10 Mbps, 400/20 Mbps and 1,000/500 Mbps, with no data caps, with monthly service prices of $17.99 (for qualifying homes), $74.99, $94.99 and $134.99, respectively.

The $17.99 monthly rate that is part of Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist program is available to homes in which one or more members are a part of the National School Lunch Program, including through the community eligibility provision, or supplemental security income for those at least 65 years old. Homes in this plan receive a free internet modem, have no data caps and do not need a contract.

The VATI application states it expects about 79% of the homes and businesses it passes to pick up broadband service, and anticipates an even higher percentage based on marketing and outreach efforts.

Charter and each of the localities plan to hold at least three town hall events “within the most impacted communities.”

Northam announced the new fund in November as Primis Bank, Facebook, Dominion Energy and the Cameron Foundation pledged more than $1.5 million toward the effort.

The localities, Charter and the HRPDC pursued the grant money as a regional initiative, forming a steering committee in spring 2021 to provide broadband in unserved areas.

The commission joined the steering committee, according to the VATI application, so it could “integrate local efforts into the regional plan for universal broadband, facilitate partnerships to increase availability and harness the opportunities presented by the subsea cables arriving in Virginia Beach and the middle-mile regional fiber ring under development by the Southside Network Authority.”

They cited not just the lack of broadband service, but its benefits to economic development in increasing access to healthcare, education and workforce development opportunities, which will also help small and home-based businesses, and their proximity to the Port of Virginia’s logistics industry, defense industries and other industries looking for vacant land and commercial space, but also looking for broadband access. The application also noted that more than 500 farmers in these Western Tidewater localities will be able to harness the full potential of new equipment and will be able to improve efficiency and allow for remote access to service providers.

Northam noted federal, state, local and private-sector investments the state has advanced over the past four years as the coronavirus pandemic highlighted an emerging and urgent need to make high-speed internet available in all areas of the state.

“Broadband access impacts every facet of our daily lives, from education to business to health care,” Northam said. “It’s a necessity for navigating today’s digital world, and this new funding will close Virginia’s digital divide with universal broadband by 2024.”

In the last four years, the state has invested more than $846 million to connect more than 429,000 homes, businesses and other entities to broadband, according to the announcement.

Virginia has taken dramatic steps on broadband since Northam took office in 2018. Prior to that, Virginia’s broadband program was investing just $4 million a year, and 660,000 Virginians did not have access to high-speed internet.

“Virginia and the VATI program continue to be the national model for closing the digital divide, and today’s announcement cements our success,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “This round of grants will connect more than 278,550 households/businesses to high-speed internet, ensuring more communities across the Commonwealth have access to the necessities of modern life.”

The VATI program provides money to extend broadband service in underserved areas, with projects chosen through a competitive process. The projects are evaluated for a demonstrated need and benefit to a community, the readiness and capacity of the applicant to proceed with the project and the cost and amount already secured for it. The amount of money for the project is based on infrastructure needs in the area.

VATI received 57 applications from 84 localities that partnered with 25 internet service providers.

Charter, according to the VATI application, is interested in partnering with the Southside Network Authority to leverage its fiber-optic network that will reach Suffolk, and on behalf of all three localities, Suffolk is working to set up a partnership with Dominion Energy to help with obtaining permits or meeting any other requirements the utility company has.

Shentel will also be adding to Suffolk’s broadband portfolio, with City Council approving a three-year right-of-way licensing agreement to allow the Edinburg-based company, more formally known as Shenandoah Cable Television LLC, to operate and install its Glo Fiber network in the city.

In July, Suffolk outlined plans to spend $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to improve broadband infrastructure in the city — $5 million to build Phase I of the regional connectivity ring and $3 million as part of its contribution to the VATI application.

Also, Suffolk and Charter embarked on a $2.2 million project — 75% of that amount coming from the city — to expand the broadband network to an additional 357 homes in the city, expected to be finished this month.

The Southside Network Authority said Cox Communications submitted the lowest bid, of nearly $18 million, for construction of the regional fiber ring and up to three years of interim maintenance. Danella Construction had the next lowest bid at nearly $24.6 million. Both bids have been extended until at least Jan. 15.

Suffolk’s council will hear more about broadband during its Dec. 15 work session. Duman said he is grateful for the broadband funding coming from the state.

“Our challenge has been to provide broadband service to the rural areas for our citizens who require that for the education of their kids,” Duman said, “and the ability to really just — broadband has just turned into a necessity, not a luxury.”