Southside Virginia serves as center of rural broadband conversation

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: February 27, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Congressional reps visit region as strides made in rural broadband deployment

PRINCE GEORGE – While strides have been made in connecting those living in rural Virginia and the nation with reliable and affordable high-speed internet, there still remain many communities who lack access to what many consider to be the “fourth utility,” alongside water, sewer service, and electricity.

Last week, Congressman Donald McEachin (VA-04) and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (VA-07) brought that conversation to the heart of Southside Virginia as the pair hosted a “Conversation on Rural Broadband,” which brought the representatives together with a number of local, state-level, and federal stakeholders to discuss what it takes to bring internet service to rural communities while identifying the headwinds affecting that goal.

Southside Virginia is a fitting venue for the conversation about rural broadband and how best to bring high-speed internet to those underserved and unserved communities given recent expansion efforts in Prince George, Dinwiddie, Sussex and Surry Counties.

In Prince George, the hosts for last week’s roundtable discussion at the Central Wellness Center, the county partnered with Prince George Electric Cooperative in 2017 by providing $1 million in local funding to support their fiber-to-the-home broadband internet product, with PGEC being tasked with bringing 500 new connections online by 2021.

They would reach and exceed that benchmark in just over two years.

According to Casey Logan, President and CEO of Prince George Electric Cooperative and a member of last Thursday’s panel discussion with Reps. McEachin and Spanberger, that $1 million of seed money helped get their project off the ground and aid in their efforts to bring internet to customers across the region.

Since their 2017 partnership with Prince George, PGEC and its Ruralband gigabit internet product has expanded to Sussex County thanks to support from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Committee. Last summer, the county’s first Ruralband customers were brought online.

Also in 2019, PGEC entered into a partnership with Surry County to bring internet service to its customers. The county has had challenges over the last several years finding an ISP to serve its residents despite having invested in fiber backbone and other equipment.

Last week’s conversation saw an update to PGEC’s efforts in Surry as it was announced the cooperative and Dominion Energy have come to an agreement that could bring over 7,000 customers online as the two entities work together and share infrastructure.

“We are excited to have Dominion Energy partner with PGEC on this exciting opportunity to bring high speed internet to a beautiful waterfront community in need of access for education and economic development growth”, said Logan.

Melissa Rollins, Surry’s acting county administrator was pleased with last week’s announcement, saying, “This partnership brings rural Surry County into the modern communications age, bridging a vital utility gap through reliable high-speed broadband services to residents and businesses, essential to Surry’s social and economic prosperity. We appreciate the partnership and commitment by Dominion Energy and PGEC to bring broadband access to Surry and other rural Virginia communities.”

The panel included representatives from the Federal Communications Commission, the governor’s office, John Tyler Community College, and Casey Logan (second from left), Prince George Electric Cooperative’s President and CEO, who was on-hand to talk about the cooperative’s Ruralband product. (Michael Campbell)

The partnership between Dominion Energy and PGEC marks the first time a utility has joined with a cooperative to expand broadband access in the Commonwealth.

PGEC was also successful in receiving millions in federal funding to help expand broadband internet in the four counties in specific U.S. Census blocks in the communities.

In neighboring Dinwiddie, the county is in the midst of working with its public-private partnership ISP Riverstreet Communications, who was given the contract with Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties to deliver fixed-based wireless internet to residents in both localities over the next three years.

According to Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill, they have received Riverstreet’s proposed coverage plan and they expect to present that to supervisors in the coming weeks.

Throughout last week’s conversation, the Congressional representatives and other panelists praised Prince George, PGEC, and other entities who opt to find unique and innovative ways to close the “digital divide” in Rural America and making it affordable for families.

While parts of the panel discussion, moderated by Prince George Deputy County Administrator Jeffrey Stoke, focused on high-level discussions about provider concerns regarding to right-of-way acquisition along railroads and the sometimes steep costs providers can face, the role of broadband in education, addressing inaccuracies in coverage maps, and how the federal government could learn from the state’s VATI, or Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, program, one of the important takeaways was this was not an issue unique to a single locality, Congressional district, or state.

“We share two counties – Henrico and Chesterfield,” Rep. Spanberger said, “Like Rep. McEachin, I represent suburban and rural communities. So I really do have the experience of talking to some of the constituents I represent where they have easy access and it’s not a concern at all and 15 minutes down the road, I have constituents literally cannot get access in their homes if they wanted. It is a significant divide and a significant challenge within the communities and he and I have had that shared experience.”

For Congressman McEachin, broadband expansion has been one of many priorities, having had meetings with PGEC in years past back when their internet product was still in a pilot project phase and conversations like the one held last week help in his efforts in Washington.

“Internet access means so much to everyone, it is an economic driver and an education driver,” he shared. “When I was going to school, I needed my parents to stay on me to make sure my work was getting done. I cannot imagine how messed it would be to have to go to a McDonald’s and sit in the parking lot to try and get connectivity to be able to do your homework, especially when you need your parents there to make sure you are doing the right thing.”

On the economic side, McEachin shared his own story of how his law firm sought to move to a community but, a lack of internet connectivity and speed resulted in not being able to expand to that locality.

“Not being able to locate exactly where we wanted to locate because of a lack of internet speed and having to change our whole business model to go somewhere else,” he detailed. “We were able to do so but it hurt that county by us not being there because they didn’t have sufficient speed.”

Rep. Donald McEachin (VA-04) chats with Prince George Board Chairman Donald Hunter prior to last week’s panel discussion on rural broadband. (Michael Campbell)

“I think if we can get the Fourth Congressional District to have complete broadband access, we will see incredible economic growth and improvement in our student population as far as educational scores,” he said.

He also offered praise to Prince George Electric Cooperative in regards to their Ruralband internet product, which has either connected or will soon connected in four counties in Southside Virginia.

“It has been a wonderful experience watching them grow and learning from them and being able to show them off,” McEachin said. “I can walk around the halls of Congress and say, ‘We know what we are doing in the Fourth Congressional District’”

Even though snow showers brought the panel discussion to a slightly earlier-than-planned conclusion, McEachin and Spanberger felt the hour-long dialogue offered plenty of value to all parties involved.

“I think this is what Congressman Spanberger and I were looking for, something that would help us as we go back to have this all-important conversation about rural broadband,” he said. “This is not a partisan issue. Democrats have issues, Republicans have issues, and the reason is because we all have rural areas that are not connected.”

For Rep. Spanberger, being able to spend time with those on the front-line of delivering broadband with rural communities, like Prince George Electric Cooperative, was invaluable during last week’s event.

“It is super impressive to hear about what Prince George is doing,” she said. “Because I serve the agriculture committee and the sub-committee that works on broadband internet infrastructure, I have had exposure to some of the unique responses that some of our localities have had, be it here in Virginia or elsewhere. But actually sitting across the table from the individuals who have brought that level of creativity and responsiveness to a community, it is impressive.”

“It is one thing to hear ‘This is what we are doing in a location,’ but it is another to be in that location and hear what the deployment has been like,” Rep. Spanberger continued.

Last week’s conversation was the second such event in Southside Virginia. In 2018, Prince George County hosted a half-day summit focused on rural broadband, which brought together local and state leaders from across the Commonwealth to discuss the topic while also serving as the unveiling of PGEC’s Ruralband internet service product.

Copyright 2020 by Womack Publishing
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