Prince George hosts engaging rural broadband summit

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 25, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

Leaders from across rural Virginia attend meeting on internet expansion

PRINCE GEORGE – Nearly two years ago, Prince George Electric Cooperative made a bold announcement to supervisors and the community-at-large as they launched their pilot project that brought fiber internet service to parts of the county where service was either spotty or nonexistent along West Quaker Road.

Jumping ahead to last week and a year after the cooperative received a $1 million grant from the county where PGEC would have to bring 500 new customers online – not including the pilot program – by mid-year 2021, nearly 200 local and state leaders descended on one of the buildings connected to the cooperative’s fiber network, the Central Wellness Center for a rural broadband internet roundtable discussion breakfast, where members of the state legislature, Governor’s Northam’s cabinet and local government leaders from across Virginia engaged in conversations about delivering broadband to their residents, how local governments can go about their own ventures and field questions on how the county partnered with PGEC to create an alliance that is seen as a model for bringing internet service to their communities when other companies may not see it as financially advantageous to expand in their localities.

The “Innovation in Broadband Roundtable,” hosted by the Virginia Rural Center served to allow the sharing of on the tangible successes and ongoing challenges faced by rural Virginians lacking increasingly vital high-speed internet access, with the county and PGEC’s partnership heralded by attendees.

“Our computer lab here wouldn’t be possible if we did not have the partnership with Prince George Electric Cooperative,” County Administrator Percy Ashcraft remarked. “We were one of their first hookups in their broadband venture and every day, a person is helped in this facility.”

Over 150 people made their way to the Central Wellness Center in Prince George for a rural broadband roundtable discussion Thursday morning. Dozens of localities were represented at the meeting. (Michael Campbell)

The county’s agreement with PGEC Enterprises requires 500 new customers by July 2021, with residents and businesses who are “within 1,000 feet of a roadway” able to receive a fiber drop to their home or business to get connected for $82 per month, including a leased router.

Speaking to the Central Wellness Center, the cooperative, through their agreement will also provide internet service to 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.

So far, just over a year in, the company has brought well over 125 new customers online, with an additional 100 applications awaiting review and continued commitments from PGEC Enterprises about further expansions once the 500 connections are made as part of the agreement. 

While the project has garnered attention from Prince George residents and businesses, all wanting to know when they will be hooked up, it has also garnered state and national recognition, a point that was brought up during the roundtable as area leaders took notes during the panel discussion. Over the past year, the public/private partnership has earned the Hopewell/Prince George Chamber of Commerce Innovative Practices Award, the Virginia Economic Developers Association Community Development Award, a National Association of Counties Award, and most recently, a Virginia Association of Counties Achievement Award just this month.

Waverly Mayor Angela McPhaul talks about the challenges her community is facing when it comes to drawing business to the town when internet services are limited. (Michael Campbell)

During the roundtable discussion at last week’s meeting, led by a panel of members from the Prince George County, Prince George Electric, Mid Atlantic Broadband, one of the region’s fiber partners, and the governor’s chief broadband advisor, local leaders were able to share their challenges when it comes to internet service while hoping to find solutions through networking with others.

“We had a Verizon DSL line, but we actually canceled it because we each tether to our phones and find the best plan for our iPhones to get our work done,” Waverly Mayor Angela McPhaul said. “It is truly something that is important to us, but it wasn’t something that we took into consideration when we moved to Sussex County. Since PGEC is in Waverly, I am hoping there is a master plan that is going to get this to us quickly.”

She added, “We have a pharmacy in Waverly on Main Street that is talking about looking for a new location because of broadband issues. It is going to be hard for me to attract businesses to help revitalize downtown without good internet.”

Along with their efforts in Prince George, through the Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission, PGEC Enterprises received a grant from the state agency for over $1 million to help expand broadband internet service in Sussex in a similar fashion to their neighbors in Prince George. During last Thursday’s event, the cooperative made a pair of announcements, noting their intentions to expand into Surry County, noting they were close to an agreement with the county for $1 million, with the cooperative receiving half of the funds after an agreement is signed and the second half should both sides agree to move forward on the second phase of the project.

The second announcement made by PGEC Enterprises was the formal launch of Ruralband, a new member service bringing Gigabit speed to members, with “R4” standing for, “Rural, Reliable, Revolutionary, Responsible.”

“Our goal is to make Ruralband the long-awaited solution for equal access in rural Virginia,” the cooperative said, estimating, by the middle of next year, including their pilot project, they expect to have over 650 homes connected to their service. 

PGEC President Mike Malandro talks about the county partnership, which has been in place for just over a year’s time and has brought over 100 customers online. (Michael Campbell)

Now, other cooperatives and localities are looking at public-private partnerships and other unique ventures beyond trying to lure a big telecommunications firm to help bring internet services to their communities, a fact that PGEC President Mike Malandro is proud of as the two-year anniversary of the pilot project approaches.

“I am proud of the team that was able to get this done,” he said. “We really all came together, including the communities, to put all this together and that is what the cooperative is all about, everybody gets together and pulls that red wagon and moves forward.”

“We’ve got several hundred customers hooked up and we’ve got another couple hundred in the queue with applications pending,” Malandro added. “Now we are getting ready to move into our next phase, which is offering that Gigabit speed to Sussex, Surry, and Prince George Counties and we hope to cover everyone in those counties over the next six years.”

Having worked closely with both the county and PGEC on the tenets of the agreement between Prince George County, PGEC, and the county’s industrial development board, who actually provided the $1 million grant following the appropriation by supervisors, Deputy County Administrator and economic development lead Jeff Stoke offered his knowledge to those across the Commonwealth about how the county’s partnership with PGEC went from proposal to reality.

“We’re excited to be sharing our model with the Commonwealth and we will encourage and help other communities roll this out,” he said. “No more studies, no more testings, no more consultants. The only success we measure are fiber internet connections to the home and we are not only committed to doing that in Prince George but showing the rest of the Commonwealth how we did it.”

Similar to PGEC’s grant through the Virginia Tobacco Commission to help expand internet service in Sussex County, neighbors to the west Dinwiddie and Amelia have partnered in their own public-private venture with internet service provider StraightUpNet to bring internet service to a vast portion of both counties thanks to a grant from the commission of nearly $2 million. Just recently, both counties agreed on a project management company out of Richmond who will aid in the development of a plan for the project. 

Prince George County Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke talks to attendees following the roundtable. (Michael Campbell)

For Stoke, these partnerships are “the best models to follow” to get internet in rural Virginia. 

“Just like in 1936, we didn’t find other solutions like solar or wind to provide electricity, they brought the electric line to the home,”  he said. “We think that bringing the fiber line to the home is the only true solution for the future.”

Attendees for last week’s breakfast were also treated to a live demonstration of the center’s new Gigabit internet speed in action through a live Skype video call with a college student who explained the impact of internet access in relation to her needs as a busy working student. The event as a whole left an impression on Delegate Emily Brewer (R-64), who listened to concerns from her constituents and beyond during the morning-long roundtable. 

“I think this has come to the forefront in rural communities where it hasn’t before,” she said. “Just by the turnout in the room, it shows that people are dedicated and that they are making a commitment to their communities for broadband access and I think that should be heralded, for sure.”

“When I was out campaigning and knocking on doors even in Prince George, they said they were going to put their house up for sale and possibly move because they couldn’t telework,” Brewer shared, adding that she is now part of the state’s broadband advisory council and she will be actively advocating for her district as they work to identify grant opportunities from state and federal sources.

Regarding PGEC Enterprises and their Prince George County project, the cooperative is slated to make regular updates to the county board of supervisors during the project’s duration, with the most recent update prior to last week’s roundtable, occurring during the spring.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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