Northumberland is in a position to be envied by most other rural counties around the state as 2,040 unserved households are slated to have broadband by the end of 2023. That places Northumberland years ahead of most other counties, Jimmy Carr, CEO of All Points Broadband (APB) told the board of supervisors.

Progress of the project

In March 2020, Northumberland joined King George, Westmoreland and Richmond County in a regional broadband project that involves APB building out a last mile broadband network from fiber cable that Dominion is running through the region to connect its substations.

Each of the counties have committed $650,000. The remaining costs will be paid by a $10.3 million Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant and $8.5 million from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund with potentially more funds to come.

According to Carr, in September, VATI issued the final approval allowing construction to start on phase one, which is roughly the first half of the project. RDOF is expected to give the final go-ahead and release its funding in December covering phase two.

Under state and federal guidelines, the network APB is building must be for unserved locations, which are defined as those without reliable service that offers 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload speed. In Northumberland, the project currently covers 2,040 addresses, which is nearly every unserved home in the county with the exception of those in Oyster Point.

Originally, Oyster Point didn’t qualify for the funding. But the rules have changed and APB is seeking another VATI grant to cover the 31 homes in that area that are unserved. If awarded, no matching funds will be required from the county, Carr told the board.

Timeline for the project

Make-ready engineering has already started. Construction will begin in two locations—the King George/Stafford area and the Warsaw area—and it will “spider out” from there, Carr explained.

Residents in Northumberland will see field crews performing work on an ongoing basis starting in January. Construction in the county will begin in the second quarter of 2022. Connections will begin in the third quarter of 2022. And the overall project is on track for substantial completion by 2024, including work in Lancaster, which joined after the initial group.

Affordable service

APB has committed to affordable rates, and its plans will start at $59.99 for 50 megabits of upload and download speeds— enough to stream 10 HD videos with no buffering, according to Carr. The service will be fully symmetrical and plans will include unlimited data. Further, the passage of the infrastructure bill offers $30 a month toward the bill for low-income households, he added.

Standard installation will cost $199, which includes the first 500 feet of the drop. If the connection has to be extended farther, there will be a flat per-foot charge which is “our cost plus 10%,” said Carr. That cost is determined quarterly, but currently it sits at about $1.28.

Question about easements

Despite Carr’s positive portrayal of the progress of the project, the Northumberland supervisors raised numerous issues.

Supervisor Tommy Thomlin said one thing that concerns him is the potential for issues with easements. He referenced litigation that’s underway, and said “I don’t want to see somebody way upstream block everybody down below.”

“The statute you’re referring to is available to utilities and not ISPs. We attach through different mechanisms [than the utilities.] That has not yet been an issue for us. And our work-around if we do not already have a way to get on a location is to be in a public right-of-way,” said Carr.

But most of this project is being built through areas that don’t have broadband, Carr added, so people are doing what they can to get it, not prevent it.

Bothered by coverage

Supervisor Richard Haynie said Carr was showing them “two totally different things.” He said one map shown during the presentation showed coverage of the entire county with the exception of the tornado area and another showed coverage as limited to the 2,040 unserved locations discussed that evening.

“We have said from the beginning what we’re able to do. What we’re able to work with the electric utilities to do is to work to get service to locations that are unserved according to the rules…” and the rules “are what they are,” Carr replied.

The supervisors also expressed grievances that they can’t offer APB service to people who are served but not served well.

The county is  looking at two perspectives–getting service to the unserved but getting better, affordable broadband to those who aren’t served well by their current provider, said Supervisor James Brann.

“Again, the goal of this project is to get service to people who have no option today.” The way the state programs are set up, they prioritize people who don’t have service, Carr reiterated.

If APB isn’t the answer to offering an alternative for Atlantic Broadband customers, Brann said he has “a hard time swallowing” that we can’t offer another type of  internet service to be competitive with the company.

Haynie said the board’s objective is to get quality service to every home in the county but right now they weren’t able to do that because of one provider. Four months have passed since he asked Atlantic Broadband for service, but they haven’t replied. “And I’m not the only one. Then, their rate is out of sight. It’s just a monopoly, he said.

“Are we creating another monopoly here?” he asked referring to the fact that the county can’t work with other broadband providers while this regional project is underway.

Carr pointed out that not only has APB made a commitment about what its basic rates are going to be, but the company along with Dominion and Northern Neck Electric have spent millions of dollars putting this project together. They have designed the network, applied for the grants, and gone through the footwork with the SCC, and they didn’t ask Northumberland County to front those costs.

“The only thing that the county is sharing in is the cost of building the final network. In exchange for our good faith commitment to develop and deploy a universal fiber-to-home solution, we ask that people make our project their priority,” Carr said.

APB’s service “may not be the only option we need here in the county” and “we should not be limited to just one option,” Brann said.

In response to the supervisors’ drawn-out airing of their concerns and frustrations, Carr’s over-arching message was although he understands the wait and certain rules can be frustrating, by being part of this project Northumberland is in a better position than most counties in the state struggling to get broadband.

Carr told Northumberland supervisors the most important execution risk for a broadband project of this nature is supply chain problems. “And we have mitigated that by securing all the materials,” he said. The money is secured and the materials have been allocated and are being shipped. But the process takes time.

“What we’re doing today is the equivalent of electrifying the countryside 100 years ago… This is very significant infrastructure,” Carr said.