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Counties seek $78.5M for fiber broadband

SoVaNow.com / September 15, 2021

The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors on Monday agreed to seek $78.5 million in grant funding from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) to bring high-speed broadband internet to unserved and underserved areas of Mecklenburg, Halifax, Brunswick and southern Charlotte counties in the next three to four years.

The regional grant application filed on Tuesday asks for $33,051,960.94 for Mecklenburg County, $27,596,035.13 for Halifax County, $14,923,047.68 for Brunswick County and $2,963,048.34 for Charlotte County to bring fiber-to-the-home to certain areas of each county.

County Administrator Wayne Carter said Mecklenburg County will work with EMPOWER Broadband, a subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, and Dominion Power to install middle-mile service and fiber to the home. When work is completed, around 80 percent of Mecklenburg County will have access to reliable broadband service.

The Federal Communications Commission’s current policy, created in 2015, sets the minimum standard for broadband service at speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Anything less is considered underserved. Areas where no service is available are defined as unserved.

The FCC has called for a new standard of 100 Mbps for both download and upload speeds. This is the standard that is required now for projects seeking grant funding through VATI, which is administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Carter said there are some areas of Mecklenburg this broadband project will not cover. These lie in census blocks and tracts that other companies — such as Space X, Verizon, Shentel and Wilkes Communication — have acquired the right to serve through auctions held by the federal government. “Until those blocks are given up, EMPOWER cannot try to build in those locations,” Carter said.

Board Chairman Glenn Barbour asked if it was possible for Mecklenburg County or EMPOWER to ask these other companies to relinquish their exclusive rights to provide broadband service in areas under their control. Carter replied, “We must first get our application in” for the current VATI grant round.

EMPOWER will be responsible for completing “last mile” connections of fiber optic cable to homes and businesses, working off the middle-mile networks that MEC and Dominion have built to connect their infrastructure pieces.

Each county participating in this regional broadband project will have to come up with 18 to 20 percent in matching funds to cover the balance of the project cost. Mecklenburg County’s share comes in at $3,078,170.39, Halifax’s matching amount is $2,680,485.80, Brunswick’s is $2,267,457.76 and Charlotte County will be required to kick in $651,000.

Carter said Mecklenburg County would be using federal dollars received through the American Rescue Plan Act to cover its $3.1 million share. Carter could not say with certainty that the other counties will similarly use ARPA dollars to cover their matching share amounts, but believed this would be the case.

Dominion, under state law, must install middle-mile service in certain project areas where it also provides electric service. Its share of the regional project will cost $42,339,998.27, of which $20,293,058.40 will be spent in Halifax County, $15,144.948.17 will be spent in Mecklenburg County and $6,901,991.70 in Brunswick County.

Carter said the lion’s share of Dominion’s dollars will be spent in Halifax County because that is where the company has the largest service area.

The balance of the $174.5 million total project cost, or $44.9 million, will come from Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative/EMPOWER.

Carter cautioned that these dollar figures were only estimates of the project costs, but said he felt confident that they will be accurate.

Mecklenburg County joined with Brunswick and Halifax, the two other counties that make up the Southside Planning District, to apply for VATI funding, based on the understanding that DHCD will look more favorably on awarding grants to regional projects. Charlotte County had initially planned to apply for VATI money individually. After EMPOWER earned the right to provide broadband service to the southern area of Charlotte, county supervisors there decided to join with Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax in their regional application.

Carter said EMPOWER and Dominion will have three years to complete the work once the grants are awarded. It is his hope that work will begin in early 2022 and be completed during the 2025 calendar year. When the project is completed, nearly 17,000 homes that are currently underserved or unserved will have access to high speed broadband.

David Brankley asked who would regulate the prices for service once installation is done. He expressed concern that EMPOWER will have exclusive rights to the area. Carter answered, “There is no regulation of costs.” There are monies available through the federal government to reduce the price of broadband service for low- to moderate-income families.

Carter said there is a separate pool of VATI dollars, around $750 million, that will be made available to companies seeking to provide AirFiber wireless service to homes, such as that being offered through Lake Country Internet. The current application is only for projects supplying universal fiber-to-the-premises broadband service.

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Comments

Would like to see the coverage map and roll out timeframe.

Comments

Jay - They are applying for a grant. How the hell do you thing they can provide a map and/or roll out time?

Comments

Ummm cause its a big part of the grant procces. They must provide the basics in the application - timeframe and projected area of instalation. Thats how the hell I expect map n rollout.


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