Work continues on Cumberland County broadband project

Published 5:55 am Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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It’s going to cost Cumberland County a bit less than expected to finish their broadband internet expansion. That’s just part of the good news, as the project itself could be finished within 18 months. 

Back in December, Firefly Fiber Broadband came to the county, asking for some help. They wanted to apply for more grant funding, in order to continue their part of the broadband work. But to be considered, they needed a financial letter of support. Cumberland supervisors agreed to promise $250,000. But it turns out that letter and the grant it would have gone to support, weren’t needed. Instead, Kinex Telecom and Firefly will be able to finish the expansion without either one. 

Kinex President Jim Garrett explained to The Herald that the $250,000 request was due to some confusion between the two companies and the federal government. Originally, Firefly was working on the northern part of Cumberland and Kinex had the south. Each company was working to provide broadband both to unserved areas, those places without any options, and underserved sections of the county, those spots where you feel like you’re still dealing with dial-up. 

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The federal government, meanwhile, has changed what qualifies as “underserved” since the project started. Previously, as Garrett explains, the federal government had declared areas where you had digital subscriber line (dsl) access as being accessible to “high-speed internet”. That system provides internet access through telephone lines and a modem. But now, that’s no longer considered “high-speed internet”, so more homes qualify for grant funding to help them get access to broadband. 

When Firefly officials saw there were more homes in the southern area of Cumberland qualifying for grant funding, they went to the county. That’s where the $250,000 comes in, as Firefly planned to build from the Cumberland Courthouse back to Farmville. There was just one problem. Kinex was already laying fiber line in those areas. 

The Cumberland County broadband problem

“Now that the slow DSL no longer qualifies as being fully served, we are having to go back and build to these little areas,” Garrett said. “I decided rather than go back, that if it was economical I would build to any and all residents and businesses that we pass, no matter whether they qualified or not. Firefly is doing the same thing in their awarded areas.” 

And that’s where the confusion came in. 

“Some of the (additional) houses in southern Cumberland needed service using the new requirements, so we made a decision to serve them because it was economical to do so,” Garrett said. “Firefly did not know we had decided to serve them, so they submitted for grant money to do so. We had already built to many of those houses, so we contacted VATI and Firefly and told them that there is no reason to spend the grant money building coming 15 miles south to serve them. We have it all covered.”  

When will it be finished? 

The biggest question everyone wants to ask is when will the project be finished. The answer is within the next 18-24 months. The “Connect Cumberland Broadband Initiative” includes previously awarded broadband contracts to Kinex Telecom and Firefly Fiber Broadband with a county contribution of $586,250. The county’s portion came from American Rescue and Recovery Act funds. 

“The Board of Supervisors is excited about the ongoing work of establishing broadband to the residents of Cumberland County. We are especially excited about the ability to work creatively, openly; finding funding solutions and realizing savings to our County,” said John Newman. He serves as Chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors.

Currently, estimates put the potential combined private investment in Cumberland County’s broadband network at more than $24 million.