“We have to make universal broadband a priority, and we can do it,” Governor Ralph Northam told the crowd in Warsaw at the groundbreaking ceremony for phase one of the Northern Neck Broadband Project, an initiative designed to bring high-speed internet to every county in the Northern Neck.
Broadband for the unserved
The Northern Neck Broadband Project was developed from a pilot program Virginia launched in 2019 that allowed utility companies, internet service providers (ISPs), and local governments to partner to bring broadband to unserved communities.
With Dominion planning to install over 200 miles of fiber optic cable from Fredericksburg to Kilmarnock, the Northern Neck with its patchy broadband availability, was deemed an ideal location to test the concept.
Dominion forged a partnership with Northern Neck Electric Cooperative and All Points Broadband, an ISP that plans to build out from the utility companies’ network to deliver broadband the “final mile” to homes and businesses.
King George, Northumberland, Westmoreland and Richmond County were early adopters of the plan, agreeing to make the necessary investments in 2020. Lancaster and Middlesex signed on later.
Considered a model for the state and nation, this multi-stakeholder project combines private, federal, and local funds. Plus, at last Thursday’s event Governor Northam presented a $10 million check offering state funding from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, also known as a VATI grant.
Commending the Northam administration for its progress on broadband funding Delegate Margaret Ransone said, “Just a few years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia had only $400,000 in its state budget to distribute grants for all Virginia, [for] the entire commonwealth for broadband infrastructure. Today, our state budget has allocated $50 million for the commonwealth in infrastructure grants. That’s a huge achievement.”
“Speaking for the citizens, thank you again for making this happen for us. We appreciate everything that this is going to mean for our community,” she said.
“I truly believe this is one of the most significant things that the stakeholders and General Assembly has done in my time in the General Assembly, and that’s awesome…this shows you what people can do when they come together and work for the common benefit of the people they serve,” said Senator Richard Stuart.
From heads of the utilities to government leaders, all of the stakeholders acknowledged that it was essential close the digital divide in the Northern Neck. A common theme among the speakers’ was that broadband is key to better access to education, healthcare and the economy.
Northam explained that being from a rural area he could relate, and when the pandemic struck what he saw underscored the need for action.
The majority of his Hampton Roads-based medical practice switched to telemedicine, an option that isn’t possible in the Northern Neck. And “when schools closed and students went to virtual learning, there were families going fast food restaurants and hotspots so their children could have access to broadband. We’re in the richest country, the best country in the world, and we can do better. So we need to all make universal broadband a priority,” the governor said.
Hint of significantly more investment
So far, the stakeholders have secured $18.8 million in state and federal funding to start building the broadband network for unserved locations in the initial four counties.
Although appreciative of the effort so far senators Stuart and Ryan McDougle called on the governor to continue to make rural broadband a priority and show it with further investments.
This first phase is “monumental” and “wonderful” but today I remind people the work is not going to be over because there are still a lot of people who have long driveways running off the road. And we’ve got to find a way to help those folks, said Stuart.
“This is a large first step. But this is just a first step. Even though we’ve put millions of dollars into this. We need to put more,” said McDougle who told the governor that if the state were to devote $1 billion of its $4 billion American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to broadband, it could create a difference in the lives of individuals.
“We’ve made that commitment to large companies bringing jobs to the commonwealth. We need to make that commitment to rural and urban Virginia putting that money into broadband,” McDougle said.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised by my proposed budget that’ll be unveiled in August because we are going to put “a significant amount” of the ARP funds into broadband, said Northam.
The ground work begins
Work on the Northern Neck Broadband Project has begun and will proceed with a phased approach. All Points Broadband is expected to begin installing the last mile connections to unserved homes and businesses in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Meanwhile, Northern Neck residents are encouraged to visit fiber.allpointsbroadband.com to register their location for inclusion and determine if they are part of the initial phase.