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$206,000 approved for rural internet / March 12, 2018

Halifax County’s request for broadband funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission went through last week, and county officials are breathing a sigh of relief after learning they won’t be asked to pay back the money.

The tobacco commission awarded $206,000 to Halifax County and its third-party internet provider, SCS Broadband/AcelaNet, to build a wireless system that will reach remote parts of Halifax County. Initially, the wireless network will serve homes and businesses in the northern and western parts of the county.

County supervisor J. T. Davis, who has spearheaded Halifax’s broadband initiative, said Friday he “is delighted” by the award, which will be given in the form of a grant, not a loan.

The scope of tobacco commission assistance was unclear until a Thursday meeting of the Research and Development Committee settled a debate over whether to stick to an original offer to hand out grant funding for rural broadband projects. After initially leaning in favor of grants, some commission members proposed loan funding to stretch scarce dollars.

That idea vexed officials in Halifax County and with Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, which won approval Thursday for a separate, $2.6 million grant to build a fiber optic network in parts of its rural Virginia service area.

“John Lee of MEC and I had been lobbying all week to get the money awarded to us as a grant rather than as a loan,” Davis said. Lee is CEO of Chase City-based MEC.

“Ed Owens (South Boston mayor and tobacco commission member) really carried the water for us,” Davis added of the debate over broadband funding. Davis also said Del. James Edmunds had been helpful on the issue, but state Sen. Frank Ruff had consistently voted to make the money available only in the form of loans.

“Making the money a loan rather than as a grant could have had a very chilling effect, but this made Thursday a good day to close the digital divide among those who have internet access and those who do not,” said Davis.

Contacted Friday, Owens described the Thursday meeting of the R&D committee as “a very challenging day.” He noted that members spent much of the day and night Thursday discussing a staff recommendation to distribute $11.3 million for local broadband projects as low-interest loans. There was some discussion of making part of the funding in the form of grants and other parts as loans, Owens said.

That day, the R&D committee voted 6-4 in favor of awarding the money outright as grants, with no repayment requirement. After presenting that recommendation to the full Commission, members voted to follow the committee’s guidance. Owens said he could not remember the exact vote in favor of grants, but said the margin in favor was two-to-one. No roll call was taken with the vote, he said.

Halifax County will spend $50,000 with SCS Broadband putting up $407,000 to establish the subscriber-based internet service, which is expected to go into operation by the end of the year.

The Tobacco Commission funding will allow the county to go forward with Phases I and II of the four-phase project, which eventually will pass by an estimated 2,977 premises and serve 744 subscribers. The total project cost is pegged at $1.1 million.

Mecklenburg Electric’s fiber network will reach 2,909 premises in the region with an expected base of 1,301 customers. The cooperative will spend $2.6 million in matching funds to complete the initial, $5.2 million phase of the project.

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While this is welcome news to District #1 residents, it is clear that Supervisor Davis spearheaded this initiative for self-serving reasons since his business is located in the area to be served. This is a clear case of conflict of interest. He opposes solar in his district and most recently the had harsh words for the applicants who wished to re-open a long dormant racetrack which would have generated tax revenue to the County. Since you can't sell crop insurance on solar farms then he isn't in support of them. It's also clear that he is running this county and what he says goes, if you cross him then you are doomed to failure.

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