By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Sept. 9 — After heavy debate during Tuesday night’s work session and Thursday afternoon’s special meeting in the parking lot behind the government center, the Page County Board of Supervisors voted, 3-1, to proceed with a state grant application that will commit $7.8 million in to a project aimed at bringing broadband to every home.
“This is a moment,” stated board chairman Morgan Phenix during Thursday’s special meeting, “and I say shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this moment.”
The “moment” involves taking advantage of unprecedented levels of federal and state funding to ensure that the internet is available to everyone. This project specifically includes the potential of laying “last mile” fiber optic cable in remote areas of the county to provide the opportunity for high-speed internet service to 3,100 unserved and underserved locations. Combined with other efforts by the county over the last year, such as the construction of additional towers to enhance wireless internet service, the proposed project could ensure that nearly every location in Page County would have access to high-speed internet within the next two to three years.
The project has been compared by the developer, as well as state and county officials, to efforts nearly a century ago to provide electricity to every home, especially in rural areas. While more populated areas are already served and not eligible for the program, this project aims to fill in all the remaining gaps in coverage.
“We have never seen, and may never see again, this type of state and federal support for broadband,” Jimmy Carr, a representative of All Points Broadband, told board members during a presentation Tuesday night.
Funds available in the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) have grown from $50 million last year to $700 million this year. The application that All Points Broadband plans to file would request $11.7 million in VATI funds to help support a $29.8 million broadband project just in Page County. Below is a cost share breakdown:
• $11.7 million — requested amount in VATI application, 39 percent of total project cost;
• $10.3 million — invested by internet service provider All Points Broadband, 35 percent of project cost;
• $7.8 million — Page County, 26 percent of project cost.
A majority of the county’s local share could be covered with $4 million in remaining American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, with the remaining $3.8 million potentially being drawn from the county’s “reserve fund”, which currently contains just over $15 million. The county’s share would be paid out over a 24-month period following approval of the VATI application in December and the signing a more formal agreement about 90 days later in spring 2022. The county would not be formally obligated (under contract) to payout the $7.8 million until they sign that agreement.
All Points Broadband is packaging the VATI application as a regional project that includes seven localities with various needs and various levels of financial commitment. Each county’s project will be unique to that county. The five localities that have committed to the application include:
• $8.9 million — Rockingham County;
• $8.4 million — Augusta County;
• $7.8 million — Page County;
• $6.9 million — Warren County;
• $5.6 million — Clarke County.
Page County’s share is based on the work that needs to be done within the county to reach all of the hollows and remote areas not currently served by another internet service provider (ISP).
“Page, generally speaking, is a more expensive place to do this” because of its topography, Carr told the supervisors earlier this week.
The cost was one key area of concern for several supervisors, who noted that using all remaining ARP funds and dipping into the reserve fund could potentially affect other planned capital projects across several departments.
“When you take the fund balance down, you limit what we can do,” District 1 supervisor Keith Guzy said during Thursday’s special meeting. “Eight million dollars changes a lot of what we can do in our county…this is not a good deal for Page County. We need things at the jail, things in our schools, things at the landfill, new police vehicles, a place to park ambulances…there’s a lot of other things we need to do.”
Some supervisors and county staff, however, argued that the long-term benefits of providing high-speed internet to all residents could bolster economic development and generate more revenue for the county.
“You ask why spend $8 million on this…because this is an investment that will help us pay for a new jail,” said Nina Long Fox, the county’s director of economic development and tourism. “A jail is not going to raise money to pay for broadband.”
“It’s kinda now or never, that’s the way I look at it, with what the state and ‘feds’ are doing,” District 5 supervisor Jeff Vaughan said. “I think, obviously, right now, it’s a no-brainer…because we don’t want to do like the county did on other regional projects.”
The board specifically discussed the money potentially lost on not joining a regional jail authority more than a decade ago.
“Let’s stay in the game,” Phenix stated about participating in the application process. “We’ve been dealing with this for years in Page…only if we had done this…and only if we’d done that.”
While the county’s current project with RF Connect will add six towers to improve wireless internet connection in underserved areas of the county by December, the key element of the All Points Broadband project is that it would lay actual fiber optic cables and build telecommunications infrastructure, which is the best — and most expensive — option. Fiber optic provides the most capacity, speed and reliability of any internet service. The high cost associated with bringing “hard lines” or fiber optic cable to each individual home is what prevented other ISPs from doing it, but government funding is making it possible now. If Page County had walked away from the deal, they would have left $22 million — or 74 percent of the total cost of the project — on the table.
“I’m just afraid if we don’t take advantage of the application, it won’t come around again,” County Administrator Amity Moler said before Thursday’s vote. She noted that RF Connect had quoted the county $12 million for a wireless project (no fiber) to provide the same coverage last year.
“This is one of the largest complaint areas that we get,” Moler stated about broadband service, “because people need service, and we really found that out over the last 18 months. You ask, what can you do to leave an impression [with the influx of federal funds for infrastructure]…this is it.”
Another concern of several supervisors was the number of locations affected by the project, versus the cost. Only 3,100 locations of the more than 13,000 across the county will be served by this proposal. Under the terms of the VATI application, only those not served by current ISPs are eligible for the program. Most of District 1 is under contract with other internet service providers or sitting within the Shenandoah National Park. Only a small sliver of homes in District 1 between those two sections will be eligible, which prompted Guzy to be the lone dissenting vote against joining the application.
The vote was delayed from Tuesday’s work session because only three members were present, with a fourth member participating by phone. In order to meet the legal requirements of a quorum, the board needed four members physically present to vote. So, a special meeting was called Thursday afternoon. That meeting was held outdoors (in the parking lot behind the government center) due to “health issues” related to one member. Supervisors Larry Foltz (Dist. 4) and Mark Stroupe (Dist. 3) were absent from both meetings — Foltz having been hospitalized and undergoing surgery, and Stroupe in Myrtle Beach on vacation.
The quick turnaround on the proposal was driven by a Tuesday deadline for filing the regional application with the state for all participating localities. The five-day window to make an $8 million decision did not go over well with several members of the board, who wanted more time to do due diligence, review the application and its terms, and potentially negotiate a lower local commitment.
“I don’t like the numbers, but I really don’t like only having five days to make a decision like this,” District 2 supervisor Allen Louderback said. “It’s not a good way to do business.”
The timetable was drawn from state deadlines put in place for the next funding cycle of funding by VATI. After the supervisors agreed to Phase I of the project this summer, All Points Broadband sent field workers to gather data all throughout the county in June and July, “riding up every road,” according to the company representative, who made his presentation to the board on Sept. 7.
“A massive amount of work has gone into getting to this point on this time frame,” Carr told supervisors on Tuesday.
After initially setting a goal in 2018 of having broadband available to everyone in Virginia by 2028, Governor Northam has tightened that goal to 2024 following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when additional federal funds were diverted to VATI funding.
“We now have all the money, now we need to go out and fund great projects,” Kyle Rossner, a representative from Northam’s broadband team, said during a Page County Public Forum online event on Aug. 25. “We are dead set to getting universal coverage.”
Virginia-based All Points Broadband is beginning construction on a regional project in the Northern Neck that got in motion last year. The project is similar to the one proposed in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, with a handful of counties participating, along with two electric providers and state VATI funding. All Points is backed by the financing of Searchlight Capital Partners, which has invested more than $1.25 billion in fiber optic infrastructure.
The regional project locally involves at least five localities, three electric providers — Dominion Energy, Shenandoah Electric Cooperative and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative — state VATI funding (if approved), and uses the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) as the conduit for the execution of the application.
If the state VATI grant is awarded for this regional project, the NSVRC would enter into agreement with the state, as the conduit of the project, while Page and other participating counties would enter into an agreement with the regional commission.
If the application is approved, it will still be about two years before customers can sign up. There will be a $199 one-time hook-up fee, with 500 feet of fiber optic included in the price. For the first year the service is offered in Page County, the additional $1.20 per foot fee for cable over 500 feet will be waived, according to the company’s presentation earlier this week. Various levels of service will be offered, but a speed of 50MB upload and download will run $59.99 a month. Packages with speeds of up to 1GB will also be offered at an estimated $129 per month.
As a point of reference, 50MB upload and download speed will allow 10 HD videos to be streamed at one location simultaneously with no buffering, according to the company rep.
While Page spent some of its federal dollars over the last year to develop “quick fixes” to the county’s broadband problems — such as mobile “hot spot” units, and the short-term Commonwealth Connect grant to help pay internet bills — the project approved on Thursday is being dubbed a “one in a generation opportunity” to create “future-proof infrastructure”.