Broadband puzzle still missing pieces

Published 6:00 am Saturday, February 13, 2021

Neighboring Mecklenburg County was recently awarded close to half of a million dollars in grant funding to construct broadband in its county.

Mecklenburg County will partner with EMPOWER Broadband to construct more than 22 miles of fiber using the $449,381 Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant funds.

The project will connect 414 functional units to broadband at gigabit speeds, including 12 businesses.

The VATI extends broadband service to currently unserved areas.

Charlotte County Administrator Dan Witt said Charlotte County did not apply for the grant.

“We didn’t identify an area that would qualify and be within the parameters for the grant,” Witt said. “However, RiverStreet Network is working on our Countywide broadband engineering plan, and it should be completed in March.”

The broadband fiber to the home network engineering plan comes with a $40,000 price tag to the county.

Witt said that in the spring, county officials hope to be ready to sit down with RiverStreet and review maps of the areas covered by the Connect America Funds grants that were awarded, identify those areas still not served, and then apply for VATI grants to fill the voids with broadband service. 

In the fall of 2019, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Connect America Fund grant RiverStreet was awarded $6,359,724 for rural broadband and expected to supply service to 2,567 locations throughout the county.

RiverStreet Networks representative Robert Taylor told the Board of Supervisors during a September 2019 meeting that Charlotte County was first on the company’s list to provide internet as part of the Connect America Fund.

In March 2020, that changed, and it is now uncertain as to when construction will begin.

According to Taylor, Charlotte was no longer number one on RiverStreet’s list, and the company moved Pittsylvania to the top of its list because infrastructure was already in place.

EMPOWER Broadband, Mecklenburg Electric and Charlotte were recently part of a joint effort to bring fiber and a hotspot to the Bacon District Volunteer Fire Station using a $72,000 grant.

Witt said some citizens who are close to the fire department had been offered EMPOWER Broadband, and others whose homes in which the fiber line may pass by can ask to be connected.

“Empower has also installed and offered connectivity to citizens along their route south of Wylliesburg,” Witt said. “I don’t have a firm timeline from RiverStreet for everyone else, but I hope to get one defined in March when we start our conversation.”

Access to broadband is dispersed unevenly throughout the country.

The uneven distribution of broadband assets is the result of the costs of deploying broadband infrastructure relative to population densities. Essentially, the cost of a mile of infrastructure in Arlington is the same as a mile of infrastructure in Charlotte, but the number of customers that can be gained in Arlington is far greater. For areas with lower densities, the cost of the infrastructure outweighs the potential revenue that could be gained from customers.