By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 13, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
Nearly two years into five-year agreement with county, PGEC over halfway to connection goal
PRINCE GEORGE – In June of 2017, Prince George County, the county industrial development authority, and Prince George Electric Cooperative partnered in an effort to expand broadband internet access in the county using a unique project by the cooperative delivering fiber to the home. Nearly two years later, their efforts are being residents online at a steady pace.
In an interview, Prince George Electric Cooperative Vice President of Communications and Government Affairs Renee Chapline, as of late February, they have connected nearly 350 members to their Ruralband high-speed internet service, which offers customers various tiered speed options up to 1 Gigabit/second, adding they remain ahead of schedule on the benchmark set forth in their agreement with Prince George County and the IDA, which called for 500 new customers to be brought online, which doesn’t include the several dozen who were already connected to PGEC’s services during the cooperatives pilot project by the summer of 2021, among other requirements in exchange for a local contribution of $1 million.
A year and nearly six months into their agreement with the county, Chapline said they are pleased with where they are in terms of a rollout of the internet product, noting the weather has presented some challenges along the way, particularly the seemingly consistent rainy conditions the Commonwealth has experienced over the last year.
“We are glad we made progress when we could because we have had a very wet winter that slowed us down,” Chapline said. “We had anticipated that we would be more ahead and maybe even finish the full 500 by the fall of this year but, now with the weather we have had, we are cautiously optimistic, but certainly no concern about being delayed because, even with the weather challenges which slowed us down a bit, fortunately, we had gained a little momentum previously.”
Since the development of this pilot project in 2016, Prince George Electric Cooperative’s fiber-to-the-home high-speed internet project has evolved from its humble beginnings along West Quaker Road, with a number of areas being covered by the newly-branded Ruralband product.
“We have covered the West Quaker area, Newville, North and South Prince George, and now, our first phase into the Waverly line sections is right there in the Georgetown Road area,” Chapline explained.
The cooperative received over a million dollars in funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission in 2018 to help in expanding internet service to residents in Sussex County, with residents being invited to a meeting to learn more about the products when they will be connected, similar to informational sessions held in Prince George when Ruralband is coming to a neighborhood.
“We had citizens show up at this meeting, ask questions about the service, which package levels would be the best for them, whether they are a home where the children or grandchildren are visiting and they are going to have 15 devices, so that session was very successful,” Chapline said. “We continue to build out the backbone for the system currently and we are seeing, in the next 90 to 120 days, us starting to hook up this first phase, which would be the build out that goes directly to the home in the Waverly area.”
Nearly 200 stakeholders gathered in Prince George in August of last year for the Rural Broadband Summit, where ideas were exchanged and officials could learn how Prince George Electric’s partnership with Prince George County came to be and the successes that were found. (Michael Campbell)
The need for rural communities to have access to high-speed internet at the same quality as their more suburban or urbanized counterparts is important, particularly when it comes to economic development prospects and educational opportunities, something Chapline, who is from rural Virginia and served as the most recent executive director of Virginia’s Gateway Region, the area’s primary economic development partner, understands and is proud to be part of.
“This project has been a long time coming and, being from rural Virginia myself, personally, it has been a really exciting time to be part of the cooperative and to see nationally that the cooperatives, with the National Rural Cooperative Association, have this as a top legislative issue,” she said. “It is very rewarding because we do get so many calls from people who are so grateful to have access to high-speed internet, educational opportunities, telemedicine, and so much more.”
She continued, “I was economic development helping to create jobs but it is hard to create jobs when you don’t have a minimum qualification of broadband so, this is finding a solution and developing a solution for rural Virginia to have many more successes in the future with job creation and education, and all the things we need to make our lives have good quality.”
Throughout the developing of the eventual Ruralband project, talk has centered on balancing those are interested in the service but making a price point that makes the service affordable. Given the cooperative is a not-for-profit entity, Chapline said their goal is growing the product and reinvesting in it to make it better and even more widely available.
“We have to cover the costs, but we don’t have to make a profit,” she explained. “We turn around and reinvest any revenue that we are generating back into the project so that model is working well, which is what the cooperatives do, so I think you will see many cooperatives have success using that model.”
Last year, Prince George and PGEC partnered for the Rural Broadband Summit, which brought together nearly 200 stakeholders, including local government officials, state representatives, service providers, and those involved in broadband internet delivery in rural areas to discuss how to expand that service, with cooperative’s partnership with the county being touted by many attendees as a model others should use when traditional internet service providers are unable to expand into their area.
“We know that rural America has struggled for a long time to be able to give the kind of quality of life, from job creation to all the things people need to sustain a viable lifestyle so we are really motivated and happy that we can have a model others can use,” Chapline said. “That is why myself and our CEO Casey Logan go out and talk about this model and we have won awards due to the model of this because it is a bit unusual but we hope we motivate other areas that are rural, like other cooperatives, counties, and cities, to be able to partner together because together is the only way it is going to get done. The socio-economic factors that we deal with in rural America and Virginia, this is certainly a part of helping those issues and making things better. So anytime we can be part of heightening the awareness of an opportunity to get this done, we are pleased to do that.”
For Prince George and their agreement to bring 500 new customers online, Chapline said they see that 500-home figure as just a starting point for what a large expansion of high-speed internet within their service area.
“We are committed to serving every member with Ruralband ultimately,” she said. “The 500 homes was just a commitment that we would get there with Prince George and we had these commitments but we don’t look at the 500, we look at ultimately, down the road in four years, it is our hope that our entire service territory will be saturated with Ruralband customers,” adding they are in the midst of installing the fiber backbone in neighboring Surry County after making an agreement with the county to deliver services there in the future.
For those customers who may be waiting for Ruralband services to get to their home or subdivision, Chapline stresses patience as, at the end of the day, this is a construction project.
“This is a construction project and, yes, the rain, weather, and factors that impact building a home or any type of construction project will impact this one,” she said. “We are literally digging holes in the ground and burying cable, just like when rural America was electrified in the 1930s. We will get there but it will take time.”
To learn more about Ruralband, visit their website at http://ruralband.coop.