They liked it so they’re going to put a $25 million ring on it

Published 6:52 pm Monday, March 14, 2022

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Region’s authority members sign a contract to build a broadband one 119-miles around

They liked it so they’re going to put a broadband ring around the region.

Southside Network Authority members signed a $24.5 million contract Monday with Danella Construction Inc. of Chesapeake to build a 119-mile fiber ring through the five cities of southside Hampton Roads – 35 miles of it in Suffolk. 

The ring is Phase I of a regional fiber network that will connect transatlantic subsea cables from Spain and Cape Town, South Africa, to the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk. In the future, the marriage of the ring could extend west into Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County. 

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A groundbreaking ceremony will take place in April, and the authority expects the regional connectivity ring to begin construction in May. 

The signing of the agreement with Danella puts an end to just over two years of work by the authority, which was created by the five cities in November 2019.

“We are pleased to be able to partner with Danella Construction and to be at the point where we can place shovels in the ground,” said authority chairwoman and Chesapeake Councilwoman Susan Vitale in a statement. “When complete, the RCR will be an open-access network that will enhance the availability and affordability of internet in the Hampton Roads region.”

Each city committed $5 million to finance the construction of the ring, and the authority has awarded a Phase 2 contract with Columbia Telecommunications Corporation to provide construction oversight as its engineering partner. 

The authority’s board is in negotiations with Global Technical Systems of Virginia Beach on a public-private partnership to potentially operate and maintain the ring. 

“The Southside Fiber Ring is the first phase of a broader regional network that will interconnect the region’s 17 local governments to the ultrafast, subsea broadband cables in Virginia Beach,” said Andria McClellan, the authority board’s vice chairwoman and Norfolk city council member. “Connecting to the fastest speeds on the East Coast will be transformational to our region and future economic development.”

Because of the project’s regional scope, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission has been providing technical land staff support to the authority since it was formed more than two years ago. 

“This has been a long time coming,” Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman said this month during a City Council work session briefing on broadband initiatives. 

Connecting to the fiber ring is just one part of the city’s efforts to expand broadband throughout its 430 square miles. 

The city, along with Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, the planning district commission and Charter Communications – operator of the Spectrum brand in Suffolk – received a $21.1 million Virginia Telecommunications grant in December. 

Randah Gaitan, a senior administrative analyst with the city, said it is due to execute the contract with the planning district commission by April 26 following council approval at its April 6 meeting. 

She also said the walk-out phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund initiative is in the final stage, as Charter has finished infrastructure on its CARES Act-funded broadband project and is in the process of finishing its punch-list and doing restoration work in needed areas. Nearly 400 residents have signed up for broadband and other services from Spectrum since the project finished. 

Edinburg-based Shentel will also be adding to the city’s broadband options, as the council previously approved a three-year right-of-way licensing agreement to allow it to operate and put in its GloFiber broadband network in Suffolk. 

Shentel has a conditional use request before the Planning Commission Tuesday to establish a utility facility on properties on South 5th Street, just off of East Washington Street, covering about 13,200 square feet. The staff report from the city’s planning office notes the properties are currently vacant. 

Called a fiber optic point of presence site for its broadband service, Shentel has proposed putting in a 30-foot by 60-foot fenced compound to be accessed from South 5th Street. Inside it will be a 336-square-foot equipment shelter that will have the needed fiber optic equipment, a 45-foot utility pole and a backup generator. 

The utility pole will have antennas at the top of it, and will be used to send and receive local channels to surrounding residential and business services. 

No full-time employees will be onsite. Shentel will, though, have employees onsite during construction and during once- to twice-per-month routine maintenance visits. There will also be one turnaround and parking space. 

Potentially, Shentel could add another 336-square-foot equipment shelter and a 25-foot-by-60-foot compound expansion. 

The staff report on the project recommends approval of the conditional use permit.