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Counties approve funding for broadband project

Supervisors in Buckingham and Cumberland counties approved funding this month for Firefly Broadband’s Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) Project set to bring reliable and affordable internet to underserved homes and businesses across the area.

According to Melissa Gay, communications and member services manager for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, Firefly’s parent company, the funds will serve as grant matches associated with the project.

As part of the RISE Project’s initiative, Firefly is partnering with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Dominion Energy to create a regional project where participating counties will support an application for a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission will be the lead applicant for the grant.

There are currently 12 counties in the proposed RISE Project area, including Buckingham, Cumberland, Albemarle, Amherst, Appomattox, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Powhatan counties.

Recently, Firefly has asked participating counties to commit to matching funds for the grant application. These funds will also improve the scoring of the grant.

During its Monday, Aug. 9, meeting, the Buckingham Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution to provide $1.5 million in funding towards the project. Firefly has identified an estimated 3,000 unserved locations in Buckingham which could be helped through the RISE project.

The Cumberland County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution the following night, Tuesday, Aug. 10, to provide local matching funding not to exceed $386,250 for the project. An estimated 464 unserved locations were identified by Firefly in Cumberland County.

According to Gay, through the project, Firefly will be able to lease fiber that is built on participating counties’ electric infrastructures to provide last-mile fiber to residents.

The company has been gathering data by way of survey and speed tests from citizens across the 12 counties in the project area to confirm which areas are currently underserved. The information gathered will help define the areas that will be included in the VATI grant application due Sept. 14.

Gay said officials expect the results of the application will be announced in December of this year. In early 2022, Dominion will file for State Corporation Commission (SCC) approval for its middle mile project area. Construction on the project will begin next year with completion of the build anticipated to occur by the end of 2025.

The company offers residential broadband packages from $49.99 and business packages from $79.99.

Counties may utilize American Rescue Plan funds to cover their matching contributions for the VATI grant application. While Buckingham, Cumberland and Nelson counties have all put forward grant funding so far, Firefly has plans to meet with officials from the nine remaining counties in the next two weeks to seek approval from more boards.

Gay noted in addition to the grants, Firefly will need 50% of resident to sign on to the broadband service in order to achieve its cost-meeting goals, adding the company operates on a very low margin.

“We are very pleased that Firefly’s partnership with Dominion will bring broadband and all its benefits to more Cumberland citizens,” Cumberland Board of Supervisors Chair and District 1 Supervisor Brian Stanley said.

“The board is very excited to be a partner in the RISE Project,” Buckingham County Administrator Karl Carter said. “It was only a short time ago when broadband was seriously lacking in the county. The RISE Project, along with existing projects, will not only get Buckingham residents access to broadband, but it will give many residents options whether in speed or affordability.”