If Virginia puts up $3.9 million, Northumberland, Westmoreland, King George and Richmond County could have 100 percent broadband coverage within the next several years.
The counties have signed onto a broadband project called the middle-mile initiative involving Dominion, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, and All Points Broadband. Under the plan, Dominion will run a cable from Northern Virginia through the Northern Neck to connect its substations and internet service provider. All Points Broadband, will build out a broadband network that extends the final mile to households in the four counties.
The current idea for funding the project involves having Dominion, NNEC and All Points Broadband pay 60 percent of the costs, or about $7.8 million. They want the state to provide 30 percent, which is $3.9 million, through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, commonly referred to as the VATI grant. And the four counties will split the remaining 10 percent, or $1.3 million, by investing about $325,000 each.
Last week Richmond County administrator Morgan Quicke got approval to move $275,000 from the unassigned fund balance, which is essentially like the county’s savings account, to the broadband account, which already has $50,000.
He explained that the middle mile initiative partners believe the VATI grant application will be stronger if all of the counties can show that they already have their share of the money on the books and dedicated to the project.
“We will not be responsible for spending any of this money until a shovel hits the ground in Richmond County,” Quicke assured the board.
But he also warned that “it’s a little bit of risk at this point” because the hope is that the counties will have funding streams that will cover their share of the project costs. But that funding isn’t certain. So, right now Richmond County is pledging its own money.
“It’s a risk we’ve got to take. It really just boils down to how important is broadband for this county…” You have to ask, “is this an important enough program for the county to pull the money out?” said Quicke. He pointed out that the board has been working on the broadband issue for a long time. And, as of June 30, the unassigned should have between $800,000 to $1 million.
In a later conversation, Quicke addressed the issue of whether the county can afford to put $325,000 on the line. Quicke reiterated that it’s a risk that seems appropriate at this time. “I think the board feels like as a whole that broadband is so important to our county and our region that’s its an investment that needs to be made regardless, he said.
“I think what we’re seeing, we’re going to continue to see more in the future. For example the education component [with students learning from home.] There’s the work from home trend, which may continue into the future as companies see they can cut out overhead. It may be an asset as people consider relocating out of urban areas. Maybe the reason they haven’t relocated to their second home [in the Northern Neck] is because in order to do their job they need reliable internet. If we’re able to get this maybe we’ll see some businesses invest. So, I think when you combine those topics, the board felt this is something we need to invest in,” Quicke added.
He said they should receive notification of whether they will be awarded the VATI grant between November and January 2021. If awarded this grant, I think you could see work starting by spring of 2021. I think we could be 12 months out from seeing some results in Richmond County. And although Quicke said he wanted to urge caution about getting people too excited about the possibility about 100 percent coverage within 24 month, he believes “realistically” there could be substantial results in that timeframe.
Richmond County has tried for the VATI grant before and didn’t receive an award. Quicke believes this project is 10 times better than the one they proposed last year, which he was also optimistic about.
But he believes they know where they went wrong. From what we heard from the Department of Housing and Community Development, the reason we weren’t funded last year was because we were cherry-picking, Quicke explained. We were going into areas that the county thought had a decent amount of density. But we weren’t thinking strategically about getting whole county coverage. Each county was taking that approach, and for the state, it wasn’t very cost effective because ultimately the goal is to bring broadband everywhere and the counties didn’t have a concrete, comprehensive plan to really wire everything.
“This is not a cherry-picking project. This is a 100 percent saturation project for four counties.” And “I think this is the best solution we’ve had up to this point,” he said.
Plus, having Dominion and NNEC along with internet service provider all on board brings more firepower. The state is going to love the project, Quicke said.
If the VATI grant isn’t approved, the four counties are then left to decide whether they will cover that $4 million they’re pursuing from the state. Quicke said he thinks at that point, they’ll probably push the brakes.
This plan is also contingent on SCC approval, which Dominion hasn’t yet received.
Quicke said Richmond County provided Dominion with its letter of support and the other counties are expected to do the same. These documents are intended to help persuade the SCC that this project isn’t just something Dominion wants to offer but it’s something the counties are pushing for.
“I don’t think we’re expecting any issues from the SCC because I think this is really good, smart regional project that makes a lot of sense. Hopefully, it can serve as a model for other rural counties that want to do this type of thing,” he said.
But “if the SCC, for one reason or another, doesn’t approve this then the VATI grant doesn’t matter because we don’t have a project. So, we don’t need the funding.”
In all, “it’s not a done deal, but we feel really good about it,” Quicke added.