Broadband to expand by 2026

Published 4:41 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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Charlotte County Administrator Dan Witt said the need for broadband expansion within the county is great.

Plans are in place to bring the internet to two thirds of the county by 2026, but the deployment of internet hot spots around Charlotte will help meet needs even before then.

Daniel “Dan” Witt

“Expanding access to high-speed, reliable internet access is a top priority of the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors,” Witt said in a Thursday, Nov. 5, email interview. “While internet is used for a multitude of reasons, the Board of Supervisors has noted the need for increased capability for distance learning, telecommuting and telehealth/telemedicine.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to schools instituting virtual learning this year, greatly increasing the importance of children and families having quality access to the internet.

Witt provided some key statistics on the three aforementioned need areas for reliable, high-speed broadband internet access — telecommuting, telehealth/telemedicine and distance learning:

• Based on data from a 2015 report from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, out of 5,848 employed individuals in Charlotte County, 3,349 (57.3%) commute out of the county to go to work. These out-commuting patterns are strengthened by lack of access to reliable internet for individuals living outside of the county’s incorporated towns where neither fiber nor fixed wireless broadband is available.

• With more than 22% of Charlotte County residents over the age of 65, an age bracket that more frequently relies on health care, broadband internet can be used for virtual doctor’s office visits.

• With about 2,500 Charlotte County residents under the age of 18, virtual learning is imperative during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly relevant after. Increased access to the internet allows for greater participation in the digital classroom.

Next, Witt described the work being done to expand broadband in the county.

“Charlotte County continues to work with private sector internet service providers (ISPs) to expand internet access in the county by leveraging federal and state funding,” he said. “In 2019, it was announced that RiverStreet Networks Inc. received $6,359,724 in federal grants from the Connect America Fund II Auction, as well as federal government loans, to cover 2,567 locations in the county with fiber broadband internet service by 2026, the federal deadline of service expansion for this grant program.

“When added to the existing network of coverage, this expansion would bring internet to about two thirds of the county.”

He noted the county is also hopeful the next round of federal grants will further expand access to high-speed internet.

“In late 2020 and early 2021, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will provide funding to ISPs to further expand coverage,” he said, “If all eligible areas receive funding in this round of federal funding, then over 95% of the county would have high-speed internet service by 2026.”

Recently, the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors entered an agreement with RiverStreet Networks to create a broadband expansion engineering plan for all unserved areas in the county that would streamline the process for developing countywide broadband, Witt said.

He emphasized that the Board of Supervisors recognizes the 2026 deadline for building out internet networks funded by these federal programs is much too long to wait for internet coverage.

“As a stop-gap measure to address the internet needs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors and Charlotte County Library System are planning an internet hot spot deployment program that would establish internet hot spots around the county to decrease the drive time to access the county’s existing hot spots at the branch libraries.”

The CARES Act has provided an added avenue of funds to help provide relief in the face of the novel coronavirus. However, it does not appear this avenue will help with major broadband expansion.

“Due to federal CARES Act funding requiring that all funds be expended and all associated projects completely implemented by Dec. 30, 2020, it is not feasible to fund widespread broadband expansion projects,” Witt said, though some expansion may be possible.

“The board has approved CARES Act money to be used to construct a 199-foot tower off Vincent Store Road,” he continued. “While this tower will be used as part of the new communication system, staff has contacted potential ISPs and wireless providers to co-locate broadband equipment.”

Witt stated Charlotte County has submitted an application for the CARES Act funding, in the amount of $30 million, delegated by the governor to fast track broadband projects across the commonwealth.

“If approved, the application proposes connecting the Bacon District Volunteer Fire Department Municipal Building on EMPOWER Broadband’s fiber broadband network to launch a publicly accessible internet hot spot,” he said.