Counties focus on expanding broadband

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The need for good, quality internet connections in homes and businesses is greater than ever given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Cumberland and Buckingham counties recently shared how important broadband expansion is to them, while also describing the work being done to make it a reality.

“Broadband is a very high priority for the county,” Cumberland County Administrator Don Unmussig stated in an email interview. “As we can all see, lack of reliable internet has created a serious constraint on the ability for our students to learn virtually during the COVID-19 issue.

“Additionally, parents who have been placed on telework status have had a rough time getting their work done as well,” he continued. “Since I have been here over this past year, several business opportunities have passed over Cumberland due to our lack of broadband capability.”

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Buckingham County Information Technology Manager Jamie Shumaker also spoke to how 2020 has been a year that has seen citizens given the unique opportunity to work from home and students tasked with being educated from their kitchen tables.

“Even our generations who were not previously dependent on internet services have been turning their sights to online activities to keep themselves out of the public during this pandemic,” he said in an email interview. “While much improved from years past, the broadband infrastructure of our community is in need of expansion to support our ever-growing dependence on online activities.”

Shumaker said Buckingham has been proactive in seeking viable methods of increased internet service in the county’s pockets of underserved and unserved areas.

“Buckingham was one of the first local counties on board with the grant announced early in 2020 allowing Firefly (Fiber Broadband) to expand service throughout the Central Virginia Electric (Cooperative) (CVEC) coverage area,” he said. “We continue to seek additional partners through applications for grant funding.

“There are two open applications through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development that target additional areas outside of the CVEC coverage area, including some of our unserved areas,” he added. “We hope to have positive feedback from these applications in early 2021.”

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has provided an added avenue of funds to help provide relief in the face of the novel coronavirus. Buckingham has put these funds to use helping its students.

Shumaker said given the pandemic-related push toward virtual learning, county administration personnel, along with Buckingham County Public Schools (BCPS) staff, quickly determined that the county’s students would need options for internet access.

“For students without internet access, CARES funding was utilized to purchase approximately 625 mobile data hot spots with unlimited data and six months service on each device,” he said. “After purchase by Buckingham County administration using these CARES funds, BCPS staff made a successful distribution to all impacted families. This has been a short-term solution in the wake of the global pandemic that also helped our staff map and quantify some of our under-and unserved areas for a long-term solution.”

Unmussig said Cumberland has applied for a portion of the $30 million in CARES Act funding that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam allocated in October to improve broadband access in underserved localities.

A press release from the governor stated that localities must apply for the funding, and eligible projects are those able to be completed within the time constraints on spending federal dollars, which means more Virginians could get connected to high-speed, broadband internet by the end of the year.

“We are still awaiting word as to our status of an award or not,” Unmussig said. “We sent in two separate grant requests. We will be watching what happens with Sen. (Mark) Warner’s act in Congress.

The aforementioned time constraints generally make it infeasible for CARES Act money to fund widespread broadband expansion. The funds have to be expended and all associated projects completely implemented by Dec. 30, 2020.

“So far we have heard nothing official regarding an extension past (Dec. 30),” Umussig said.

He also noted that the amount of CARES funding Cumberland has received would only amount to a small fraction of the cost of a broadband project.

“It would only be ‘a drop in the bucket,’ so to speak, and if the state and federal level governments are serious about developing broadband in rural areas, they need to dramatically increase the level of funding they propose,” he said.

Cumberland is pushing on other doors to expand broadband within its borders, though, and Unmussig summarized those efforts.

It was previously announced that the county has an expanded broadband partnership with Central Virginia Services Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of CVEC that operates Firefly Fiber Broadband. Firefly was seeking to expand fiber-to-the-premise for 1,609 locations in Cumberland, representing a total of $9.7 million of new investment in the county, contingent upon the successful award of grant funding.

Unmussig confirmed the first round was awarded.

“Their station in Cartersville was selected as one of their first locations, and now the northern part of the county will have an opportunity to sign on with Firefly to obtain broadband access,” he said. “Additionally, we have added our support to a follow-on grant CVEC submitted that, if approved and awarded, will expand broadband capability into the central area of the county.

“We recently sent in another application for grant funding for a switching station that will assist Mid-Atlantic Broadband with additional expansion for 396 homes and 46 businesses to receive broadband in the county.”

Prince Edward County was also contacted for this story, but a response was not received by press time.