By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Dec. 30 — Earlier this month, Page County received a third allotment of federal CARES funding through the state to help improve broadband service to county residents.
A Dec. 10 letter from Governor Ralph Northam’s office and the Commonwealth Connect program alerted the county administrator to the largest of three grants the county has received from Broadband Fast Track funding.
“On behalf of Governor Northam, it gives me great pleasure to inform you that Page County has been awarded broadband funding pursuant to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in the amount of $1,627,276 for the Page County Fixed Wireless Project,” reads the Dec. 10 letter from Evan Feinman, Chief Broadband Advisor.
Requirements of the funding mandated that it “must be expended and service must be available by December 25, 2020,” according to the letter.
“Similar to previous CARES Act allocations to localities, this award amount will be transmitted to Page County by the Department of Accounts. Once the project is complete, the Governor’s Broadband Team and the Department of Accounts will follow up regarding project outcomes and compliance,” Feinman added. “Congratulations on your award and we look forward to working with you now and in the future to achieve universal broadband coverage in Page County.”
As part of the CARES Act Broadband Fast Track effort, Page County previously received $390,000 to “pay the annual internet service fees for households receiving any kind of financial assistance (if service is available to their home),” according to Page County Administrator Amity Moler. Notices of the program were publicized throughout the community by the county’s Economic Development office and dozens of applications were received.
The county was also awarded $78,800 to “deploy eight mobile hot spots,” according to a Dec. 15 statement by Moler, “which we will deploy throughout the county in hopes of boosting the signal to challenged areas, or at least, allow drive-up locations for Telehealth, distance learning, etc.”
The county administrator said that the $1.6 million received this month will allow for a partnership with High Speed Link “for construction of six towers and all necessary equipment to provide service to thousands of our citizens throughout Page County.”
Moler noted that the Fast Track funds are in addition to CARES Act funding the county has already approved to spend with RF Connect to create the infrastructure for expanded broadband availability.
During the Page County Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 6 meeting, a representative from RF Connect told the board that the first phase of the project to expand broadband service could last from 30 days to three months to determine what will be needed and what existing infrastructure can be utilized.
“I see Phase I as a proving ground,” RF Connect’s Frank Destito said via a phone presentation during the Oct. 6 board meeting. “We’re going to treat this as a phased approach. This is not going to drag out for a long time.”
Although board members have not received a public update on the broadband project prior to the end of 2020, Phase I was outlined in October as a discovery phase to see if existing fiber optics or other infrastructure could be utilized, with the intention of utilizing at least three tower locations and providing up to 500 routers for end users.
The entire project could call for up to 13 towers, with each covering an area of about one square mile. Other “small cells” may be added in various stages that would cover a “neighborhood size” area to fill in holes or gaps in coverage.
“Any existing tower or fiber would expedite the project and lower the cost,” the consultant stated. “In Phase I, we will be scouting site acquisition and areas we can leverage existing outlets. Once we land the first tower, we can get going to evaluate” and begin to establish the network.
The consultant noted that too many variables existed on the front end to put a specific end date on the project, but noted that an impact could potentially be made in “weeks rather than months.”
At the conclusion of the discussion at the October meeting, supervisors noted the necessity of improved broadband for a wide variety of services and unanimously voted, 5-0, to allocate up to $1.68 million in CARES Act funds to the broadband expansion project with RF Connect. District 1 supervisor Keith Guzy abstained from the vote because he “works in the industry.”
“We are so far behind, we need to catch up and move forward,” District 5 supervisor Jeff Vaughan said prior to the vote. “The only way you do that is a major investment.”
“We’ve talked so many times about economic development,” Vaughan continued. “To me, it’s an economic engine.”
Supervisors discussed the growing need for improved internet service in the county to support everything from expanded distance learning among students (at the primary, secondary and collegiate levels) to better public access to streamed government meetings; and from creating a better resource for law enforcement, emergency services and other government agencies, to providing a more attractive setting for cabin rentals and tourists.
“What other option do we have?” District 4 supervisor Larry Foltz asked.
The consultant stated that no additional staff should be needed for the first phase of the project. However, additional staff may be needed if the county advances to a level of becoming an internet provider, to include setting service fees and creating a billing system.
If the county creates or builds infrastructure, which could include $3 million or more in fiber optic improvements alone, excess fiber could be sold and agreements could be made with third party service providers.
“You can open up competition for broadband by building the foundation for others to leverage,” the consultant told supervisors. “If the county creates the asset, the infrastructure, then you can leverage it however you see fit. The county would own the network.”
The aim of the county’s broadband efforts is to reach areas where other providers won’t go.
“No other company is coming to Page County and build this,” Guzy told fellow board members. “This will be built in areas where it’s not feasible for others” to do so.
The network would act as the “last fiber mile” by offering wireless broadband service, thus negating the need for fiber connected to individual locations.
“There is little you can do to bring fiber to every home, the cost is just too great… and it’s not going to happen,” the consultant said. “This project should serve as a bridge to areas that it is not reasonable to bring fiber to.”
If the project and the network expands to the 13 towers outlined in the preliminary plan, total costs could reach $12.7 million, according to comments made by several supervisors. However, both the consultant and the supervisors agreed to proceed in phases, focusing “on areas of need first.”
“Phase I is the most critical to us,” the consultant said. “We can determine in Phase I, if we can go beyond Phase I.”
Several supervisors acknowledged concerns over becoming a utility provider, but all agreed to move forward with the first phase of the project, at times dubbing it a “feasibility study” paid for with federal grants and not local funds.
“If we [approve] Phase I, it doesn’t lock us into a long-term deal,” Guzy noted. “If we invest in an asset like a tower, it could require a long-term deal.”