Internet providers question All Points Broadband’s list of ‘unserved’ areas, could hinder grant application
By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Sept. 30 — All Points Broadband, along with Page County officials, are asking local residents to complete a survey about “unserved” areas of the county with relation to broadband service. The results of that survey could influence a decision by the state on a regional grant application that includes a $30 million broadband project in Page County.
Earlier this month, Page County agreed to commit $7.8 million in local funds to a project aimed at bringing broadband to every home. Virginia-based All Points Broadband is offering to put up $10.3 million for the project, with another $11.7 million being applied for through a VATI grant.
In a big push from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to make broadband service available at all locations across the state, funds available in the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) have grown from $50 million last year to $700 million this year. 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.
While the county’s current broadband 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.
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, 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 need for a new survey about broadband service in Page County — and its importance to the application process — was prompted when other internet service providers (or ISPs) questioned the list of “unserved” areas in the county.
“Page County recently applied for a state grant to achieve universal fiber-to-the-home broadband to unserved locations in the County. Because state grants are only available in areas that are ‘unserved’ by broadband, as part of the planning effort a list of unserved locations was submitted to the state agency that determines whether broadband service is available,” reads a statement from All Points Broadband soliciting participation in the new survey. “Several incumbent providers — including Comcast, HighSpeedLink, Shentel, and CenturyLink/Lumen — have challenged the list of unserved locations in the County by claiming to offer broadband service within areas proposed for grant funding.”
“We need your help to make sure that your home or business in [Page] County that is unserved by broadband is included in the project area for the grant,” the statement continues. “Please take a few minutes to complete the survey at the link below to verify whether or not your location has broadband access today.”
“Without adequate survey responses from you and your neighbors, your area may be excluded from the broadband grant project,” the statement reads. “Please take five minutes to complete the survey to the best of your ability.”
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.
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.
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 — this project is being dubbed a “one in a generation opportunity” to create “future-proof infrastructure”.