PGEC reaches internet service milestone well ahead of schedule

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 7, 2019 | 12:24 p.m.

‘Over 500 homes’ connected to Ruralband within county, co-op confirms

PRINCE GEORGE – Just over two years ago, Prince George Electric Cooperative and Prince George County entered into a unique agreement to help expand access to broadband internet service in the county by providing $1 million to the cooperative to help them bring 500 new internet customers online in four years. 

According to cooperative representatives, roughly 25 months later, they have reached and exceeded that benchmark.

In an interview, Prince George Electric Cooperative public affairs head Renee Chapline said the cooperative has brought over 500 customers online with their “Ruralband” fiber-based, high-speed internet product within the county, well ahead of the July 1, 2021 hard deadline set out in their 2017 agreement with the county and its industrial development authority that provided PGEC with the $1 million in grant funds to pay for expansion of their internet product which had just completed a successful pilot project along West Quaker Road and Prince George Drive.

“Not only have we hooked up more than 500 homes, we have passed more than 1,100 homes,” she detailed. “Now, maybe they can’t take the service right now. Maybe they are in a contract or they have to wait six months, those kinds of things, but we have made it available to over 1,100 homes as of today.”

Back in 2017, when the project had just received the $1 million in funding from the county, which was part of a springtime borrowing and then transferred to the IDA, this public-private partnership noted as part of the nearly dozen-page long contract that those residents and businesses who are “within 1,000 feet of a roadway” will be able to receive a fiber drop to their home or business as PGEC Enterprises worked to expand internet services through the county, with service currently costing $82 per month, which includes a leased router.

As part of that agreement, PGEC Enterprises, the subsidiary of Prince George Electric Cooperative that actually provides Ruralband also has to provide internet service at the Central Wellness Center, Prince George Emergency Crew building, the Burrowsville Fire Department and the town’s community center for the residential rate of $82 per month with a leased router during the term of the agreement. When that period ends, the rate would convert to the commercial rate.

The Central Wellness Center has had the Ruralband product for at least a year as, in August of 2018, PGEC Enterprises and Prince George County hosted the Rural Broadband Summit at the center, which served as the unveiling of the cooperative’s Ruralband product, which promises gigabit speeds to customers thanks to their fiber network. The event saw PGEC officials showcase the service with high definition video-streaming and other proof-of-performance elements to highlight the quality of their network. 

Even though the contract between the county and PGEC Enterprises requires a minimum of 25 megabits per second of download speed and three megabits upload, many customers are receiving far above that minimum speed thanks to the roll out and expansion of the Ruralband product over the last year, allowing customers to be able to stream video and music content, play video games online without latency issues, and work from home with ease. 

Ever since the three parties signed on the dotted line to allow for the $1 million in funds to be used by PGEC for this effort, Chapline said the partnership has been a great story to tell across the country.

“This is a story we tell around the nation,” noting that she had recently done an interview with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and their magazine as part of a feature being done on the cooperative’s internet expansion efforts. “This is something that we tell because we feel if we can make it work, if at all possible, we would love to help our fellow cooperatives be able to make it work for their areas as well because it is a game changer and it is certainly worth a very strong look and evaluation by any cooperative.”

After the funding to help finance the 500 new connections in Prince George, which were to not include the previous nearly 80 customers that were part of the West Quaker/Prince George Drive pilot project, some questioned whether the cooperative would slow or end their expansion once they reached that threshold. In updates throughout the project’s life, officials with PGEC Enterprises said their hope was to see what is now known as Ruralband expand throughout their service area and, in an interview last week, that mindset bringing internet across rural southern Virginia hasn’t changed. 

“This has been a real problem,” Chapline said, whose background includes years on the front line of economic development as Virginia’s Gateway Region’s executive director. “I bet I have sat in on hundreds of meetings over the last five to ten years about this being a problem and how this could be a game changer for rural Virginia if we could get it for our citizens. This is quite rewarding.”

She continued, “We have not even touched on the ways we can utilize this opportunity to deploy education and opportunities for our citizens to be able to grow their minds and have better opportunities and prosperity within their own families.” 

PGEC CEO Casey Logan presents Congressman Donald McEachin with a special Prince George Electric phone case during a visit to Surry Saturday morning. McEachin has bene in close contact with the cooperative since they began exploring their venture into providing high-speed internet service. (Michael Campbell)

Throughout the project’s development, PGEC stressed the importance of local investments from local governments and the need of federal funding from Washington to help make this multi-million dollar infrastructure project a reality. Since 2017 when the project left its pilot stage and began growing in Prince George County thanks to the county’s $1 million in funding, the cooperative has also worked with Sussex County to secure another $1 million through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to help expand service in their county and, just last month, over $15 million from the Federal Communications Commission to help connect over 5,000 new locations in specific U.S. Census population blocks within Prince George, Dinwiddie, Sussex, and Surry Counties. 

For the cooperative, their unique business model when compared to traditional for-profit service providers creates an opportunity to develop this product and bring it to areas that have been largely passed over by some internet service providers.

“If this had been a profitable venture, the for-profit providers would’ve already done it,” Chapline said. “The subsidies from our local governments and the federal government are critical because without it, it would just be a situation that could not be funded.”

She elaborated, “As a cooperative, we are used to having ten-year returns and when you look at for-profit companies, that is less palatable. We don’t have corporate shareholders and because we don’t have them, all of the revenue that is generated goes back into the programming. It is very much like the 1930s when rural America was being electrified and the cooperatives were the only solution because they could stand the loan payback and they were willing to do it and not be responsible to shareholders.”

“This discussion has gone on for so long and yet, it has taken until the last two or three years to look at the cooperatives and say, ‘Hey, there is a possibility this could work so.’ One of the reasons why I decided to change from economic development to the cooperatives was because one of the barriers we have seen for years in rural America has been population decline, a lack of jobs, education access, and many things that kids get in urban areas that we can’t provide.”

“I think this is going to be a game changer and a door-opener for rural America because now, there are no excuses. We have the opportunity to work from home, to educate our children without putting them on a bus or a caravan to send them 70 miles up the road. I know how important this is and, I think in my lifetime we are going to see some direct benefits of this but long-term, I think this will spark some development that has needed to happen for quite some time in rural America,” Chapline closed.

To learn more about Prince George Electric Cooperative’s Ruralband internet product, visit their website at http://ruralband.coop. The cooperative is expected to deliver the news of completing their 500-home contract in Prince George on August 13 to the county board of supervisors.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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