The News & Record
South Boston News & Record
and Mecklenburg Sun
Home   •   News   •   Sports   •   Classifieds   •   Community   •   Health   •   Entertainment   •   Obituaries   •   Opinions   •   Weather
Advertising | Contact | Register
Advanced Search
News

Task Force make four more drug arrests

South Boston Council meets Tuesday

ED-3 supervisor to lead town hall on school referendum


Sports

Comets get 47-14 Homecoming win

Three week road trip begins Friday at GW

Community


Opinion


A&E

News

BROADBAND BULLETIN

South Boston News
State and federal officials involved in broadband deployment joined 5th District Rep. Denver Riggleman for a community forum discussion Monday night that attracted some 60 guests to the Estes Center in Chase City. From left, Ann Herring, with the USDA/Rural Development Innovation Center; Evan Feinman, director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission; Chad Parker with the USDA Telecommunications Project; Congressman Riggleman; and Richard Jenkins with USDA Rural Development. (Susan Kyte photo)
SoVaNow.com / August 28, 2019
Area business and community leaders converged on Chase City Monday night to hear what 5th District Rep. Denver Riggleman and others had to say about the prospects for improving broadband internet access in Mecklenburg, Charlotte, Lunenburg and surrounding areas.

Riggleman (R-Nelson County) hosted the Rural Broadband Forum to discuss funding opportunities for local companies and communities that are working to bring high-speed internet to underserved families and businesses across Southside Virginia. He and other speakers at the forum also stressed the need for regional and public/private partnerships in developing and funding connectivity projects.

Riggleman brought with him Evan Feinman, executive director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and chief broadband advisor to Gov. Ralph Northam, and other officials to discuss the status of broadband development in the region.

Riggleman, who is serving his first term in Congress, said his decision to focus on broadband access was borne of personal frustration as a small business operator before he became a congressman. Riggleman’s firm is a Nelson County whiskey maker, Silverback Distillery.

Riggleman said he’s spent his first eight months in Congress working to increase federal spending for rural broadband. Though pleased to receive $55 million for broadband connectivity projects, he acknowledged the money is “just a drop in the bucket.”

He and other members of a newly established, bipartisan broadband caucus in Congress have asked for an additional $25 million, and will continue to seek more funding as they work to address internet connectivity issues throughout rural America.

Riggleman said the purpose of Monday’s forum was to identify funding sources that are available to providers of broadband connectivity.

Chad Parker, assistant administrator of USDA’s telecommunications project, Richard Jenkins, a general field representative for telecom projects with the USDA Rural Development office, and Ann Herring, a member of the USDA/Rural Development Innovation Center, also shared the spotlight at the panel discussion.

Feinmam stressed the need for community engagement, telling the audience that politicians need to hear from their constituents on this issue.

He applauded the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission for its early grasp of the impact that reliable high-speed internet service has on a community’s future, while noting the slow pace at which rural communities are getting connected and the implications of it all.

“There is no economic future for communities that cannot get online. It is not fair or right to tell people that there are forward-looking social, political and entertainment conversations taking place on the internet and you don’t get to participate,” said Feinman.

So far, only 71,000 businesses and homes across Virginia will receive high-speed internet service in the next two to three years from projects funded with over $24 million in freshly allocated state funds. There is another $19 million in grant money on the table that could increase the number of internet users, he said, but not significantly.

Feinman said the state has a long way to go, noting that 600,000 people, right now, do not have internet access. “That’s a critical failure on the part of the leaders,” Feinman said.

Mike Hankins, a member of the Lunenburg County Board Supervisors, criticized the slow pace of broadband deployment after Feinman outlined the governor’s 10-year goal of connecting every Virginian to the internet.

“It won’t help communities grow,” said Hankins of the 10-year timetable.

Current projections have Lunenburg and other counties across Southside Virginia losing upwards of five percent of their population each year for the next decade.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set aside $84.5 million over the next decade to connect a mere 31,000 homes and businesses, among millions nationwide that need service, prompting Hankins to observe that the Commonwealth is better equipped than the federal government to address the issue.

Riggleman agreed the Commonwealth could do a better job allocating funds compared to the federal government, but the response did not appear to appease Hankins.

Feinman explained how policy changes at the state level in the form of the Utility Leverage Bill will allow for more internet service providers (ISPs) to develop community networks. Under the bill, utilities like Appalachian Power and Dominion can now develop internet service — something they were barred from doing in the past.

He encouraged local governments to take advantage of a newly-enacted special tax district bill through which localities can add a small surcharge on local tax bills to raise matching funds for internet grants. Feinman predicted that locations with matching funds would be looked on more favorably by more internet service providers.

His final word of advice was for communities to think regionally, not locally. He said Virginia would no longer support funding requests that “cherry pick” or “go after the low hanging fruit” when it comes to deciding where to provide service. Funding for future projects will go to those providers that propose regional and universal service.

John Lee, CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, asked Feinman and the other panelists to prioritize funding to companies that are looking to install ultra-high speed fiber optic broadband, as opposed to slower wireless service, but he was told that it is not financially feasible or geologically realistic to require that every project be built using fiber.

Chad Parker and Richard Jenkins with the USDA focused their remarks on two USDA programs that fund rural internet projects. They, too, stressed the importance regional projects when evaluating which requests to fund.

Within the next month the USDA will award around $600 million through its Reconnect America Program. The funds will be provided in either the form of a grant award, a low-interest loan or a combination of the two. There is $200 million set aside in each funding category.

Parker said they already know that not every project will get approved. By the time the July 21 application deadline passed, Parker said his office had received 78 applications seeking $525 million in grant money. Of that sum, 53 applications sought $342 million combination grant/loan money and 15 applications requested $258 million in loans. Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative is one of the 78 grant-only applicants.

Parker did not indicate the level of funding Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative hopes to receive.

“Obviously, we are way over-subscribed,” said Parker, before explaining that another $550 million will be available through the program by the end of the year.

In addition to regional projects, Parker said Reconnect program will give priority to those projects aimed at improving quality of life. “We will look at who are you connecting.” USDA prefers projects that focus on connecting “kids to schools, and the elderly and families to healthcare, and service to farmers and business that will increase economic aspects.”

The last funding source discussed was the Community Connect money that Jenkins’ office oversees. These are grants of between $500,000 and $3 million with a 15 percent match. The window to apply for this money will not be available until the spring at the earliest.

He encouraged communities to reach out to him now, to see if their area could benefit from Community Connect money.



Tell-a-Friend | Submit a Comment

46

Comments

Something needs to be done about the internet issue. There is always a push for wanting our kids to stay in the area but they can't even get high speed internet to do their homework in Mecklenburg County. It's ridiculous!


Advertising Flyer

Find out how you can reach more customers by advertising with The News & Record and The Mecklenburg Sun -- in print and online.