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Internet provider presses Mecklenburg County for grant support

SoVaNow.com / August 11, 2021
A local internet service provider urged the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors to help his company obtain state broadband grant funds to move forward with building out a reliable, satellite-based network to underserved business and residents in Mecklenburg County.

David Varner, owner of Lake Country Internet, was joined by a small cadre of supporters who implored county supervisors to give their backing to the project. They spoke at the board’s meeting in Boydton on Monday.

Lake Country Internet is seeking to apply for grant funding by VATI, which stands for Virginia Telecommunication Initiative. The state-run program provides funding to localities and providers that are looking to extend broadband service to unserved and underserved areas.

The grant program is administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. County Administrator Wayne Carter notified Tamarah Holmes, director of the DHCD Office of Broadband, of Mecklenburg County’s intent to take part in the FY 2022 grant round in a letter dated July.

He wrote, “Mecklenburg County intends to submit an application for universal fiber to the premise broadband coverage for the entire county that is by definition underserved/unserved area.”

Varner said the language of the letter precludes his company from receiving any VATI funding to expand his service, as Lake Country Internet does not provide universal fiber to the home. That work is being done by EMPOWER Broadband, a subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative.

Varner said his AirFiber wireless service has the capability to provide internet service anywhere in the county. “With the addition of small HAM radio type towers, we can bring internet to any community, within 10-25 miles of any of our towers. We have done this successfully, over and over.”

Varner said his AirFiber service provides the same speeds and level of service as hard-wired fiber connections. More importantly, Varner said, “We can do this for a fraction of what a fiber run to every home would cost and in a matter of weeks, not years.”

Varner acknowledges that the local topography and vegetation hindered delivery of his service in the past, but technology advances have allowed him to overcome most problems. He cannot provide the service without there being additional towers installed in the county and without money for additional equipment. For that, Varner said, he needs access to capital, such as VATI money.

He cannot obtain VATI money unless Mecklenburg County is willing to enter a partnership with Lake Country Internet.

Varner said his is a family-owned and -operated business that was one of the first companies in Mecklenburg to provide high speed internet via satellite. The company still has about 1,000 satellite clients but he is now installing what is said was AirFiber wireless. His first AirFiber service was launched in the fall of 2018 in partnership with Microsoft.

Lane Sandifer, a Lake Country Internet customer, told supervisors that providing internet service with speeds of 50 Mbps throughout Mecklenburg can be accomplished at 10 percent of the current cost if Varner’s satellite service is used.

“Gig fiber [which is being installed by EMPOWER and considered to technology experts as better for delivering the fastest speeds over the internet] is not needed in most homes.” Sandifer called it “foolhardy to waste millions of dollars on fiber to home when it is not needed and would not be used.”

He wondered why the county would not want to promote competition among providers, support a locally-owned company and provide the 30,000 residents of Mecklenburg County with satellite internet at a fraction of the cost of fiber.

Tom Ivey asked the board to invite the public to a meeting to “see differences in internet options,” before committing to support only one company.

Other supporters of Varner described their ever-increasing bills and service declines and lack of company support that they have suffered from the likes of internet providers AT&T and Verizon.

Casina Sandifer said “these companies don’t help local people, but that man” — pointing to Varner — “put boxes on trees so you can get service. He and his son go the extra mile. They are responsive. Try calling Verizon or AT&T and see what happens.”

Eward Melton, a local insurance company executive, told supervisors that he believes that “fiber is the way to go long term, but the digital divide is now. We need help today and Varner’s solution is available today and can be done now. Hedge your bets. Do not put all your dollars in one bucket. Without Lake Country Internet our ability to work from home would not be viable.”

Several residents of the Bluestone Forest area where Varner has a number of customers spoke in glowing terms about the service Lake Country Internet provides.

Varner said his requests to Carter for help with obtaining VATI grant money have gone unheeded. Varner said his two most recent letters were sent Jan. 13 and Feb. 24.

Carter says Varner has never provided him with a working proposal, only a letter and map marked with dots for potential tower sites. That letter was sent June 8, 2020. In it, Varner identified the problem his service was having and proposed a solution, but added, “We are just out of money to go any further.”

Varner said he received no response from Carter.

In more recent exchanges with Debra Gosney at the Southside Planning District Commission, where Varner also sought support, he said he was told, “the three counties that make up the Southside PDC region have collectively made the decision that fiber to the premises is their desired broadband solution.” The Southside Planning District consists of Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties.

With the federal government poised to make major investments in broadband availability, regulators have signaled that funded services must reliably meet or exceed upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps, four times the current federal standard for broadband internet. Mecklenburg and surrounding counties are planning to use federal covid relief funds to pay the local match for broadband applications.

Varner is emphatic that his AirFiber Wireless service can meet those upload and download speeds with the right equipment.

In a letter Varner submitted to the Board of Supervisors on Monday, he asked, “Why is my company being denied the right to have access to grant funding and everything going to fund BIT/Mecklenburg Electric and why are you making the kind folks of Mecklenburg County who are begging for our services wait possibly up to three years or longer, for your expensive fiber-only plan, when we can deliver today, and not even giving folks any other choices or say in the matter?”

Varner said the reference to three years in his letter to supervisors was reflective of the timeframe EMPOWER has provided publicly for how long it would take to build out its fiber-to-the-home network.

Varner concluded his letter to supervisors saying, “I also have an email of support from Sen. Frank Ruff.”

The board took no action on his request.

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Comments

Just for clarification many references have been made to this being a satellite based service. This service is being offered using our AirFiber Wireless service that we built from the ground up, and is NOT satellite.

Comments

^^ family is in Bluestone and use your air fiber. Works as advertised good consistant speed. Latency is not bad, can video call, stream and browse. I hope you get the grant and can expand the service area. I miss my 1gb down / 1gb up internet.


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