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County aims for universal broadband coverage

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors voted Aug. 24 to adopt a resolution supporting a regional Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant application and committing local match funding sufficient to support implementation of a high-speed broadband project that will help bring universal broadband coverage to the county.

Michael Johnson

In the board meeting packet, County Administrator Michael Johnson indicated in a brief report that it is the county’s intent to utilize Local Fiscal Recovery Funds delivered to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act to meet the county’s 10% local match requirement.

In the report, Johnson reminded supervisors that Charter Communications announced back in February that it had been awarded approximately $1.2 billion in funding by the Federal Communications Commission from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to launch a new multi-year initiative, expanding broadband access to over 1 million new customer locations in 24 states, including Virginia.

Johnson noted that Eric Collins, Charter’s director of government affairs, would present exciting details to the board Aug. 24 about Charter’s plans for the RDOF project in Southampton

County and how Charter proposes to leverage those federal funds by partnering with

Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. on a VATI grant to provide universal broadband coverage for all Southampton County households.

Speaking on behalf of Charter to the board during the meeting, Collins said, “The intent from both processes of VATI and RDOF, plus what our existing service is, is to have no unserved customers (in Southampton County).”

Early in his presentation, Collins provided background on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“It is a fund that was set up by the FCC through a contribution of $20 billion to look across the United States and look at those areas across the country and determine where providers were not building out to” based on there being no return on their investment over many years, he said.

Collins noted that Charter Communications already services some households in Southampton County, and from the RDOF, Charter was awarded 3,873 household passings in the county.

Ashley Covington, FSEDI’s marketing and existing business manager, spoke to the board after Collins and explained that a passing could refer to “a home, a business, a church, that’s any type of organization that may need service. It’s not just a residential passing, so I just want everybody to know that.”

As he began talking about the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s VATI grant, Collins stated that localities apply for this grant in conjunction with a partner, and that partner in this case is Charter Communications.

“So we’re in the midst of working through the VATI process,” he said. “It’s going to be due mid-September.”

He stated that in this process, the goal is for VATI to fill in the remaining gaps in coverage in the county, bringing broadband access to the locations not covered by Charter or the RDOF.

He said that in working with DHCD, the department suggested that Southampton County do a regional application.

“We applied last year, but we did not receive the grant,” Collins said. “They suggested that Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Southampton County do a regional application based on the fact that a scoring criteria would be much better if we do a regional application, all together in one application, but it would be separated out, in essence, by county within the application.”

In this application, for Southampton County, “we’re looking at an additional 1,089 passings,” Collins said. “So if you take that 1,089 passings and you add it to the 3,873, do the math there.”

This translates to 4,962 locations having access to broadband.

“Those are households that are not currently being served with broadband,” he said. “So this really puts Southampton County to the point where we’re trying to get where every household has access to broadband. It doesn’t matter whether they want to subscribe to it. The word is ‘access’ — making sure they have access to broadband.”

In terms of the RDOF award, Collins indicated that the FCC requires a provider to complete the project using the award within six years, and 40% of the project has to be built within the third year.

“We’re trying to speed that process up,” Collins said at the Aug. 24 meeting. “I received word this week, actually Friday, that we hope to begin walkout of the RDOF areas within the next month, which tells me hopefully that process is going to speed well ahead of whatever six-year period that the FCC gives you (by which) you have to be completed.”

Collins described the process of the walkout, stating that part of it is a physical walk.

“Someone has to actually get out in a vehicle and walk and ride every street, count every home and figure out how is this network going to need to be designed to accomplish what we need to accomplish?” he said. 

The physical walkout will determine whether fiber-optic cables will be on telephone poles or underground, he noted.

“It all depends upon how far apart the poles are,” he said. “If we can reach that span and have clearance for farmers to get their combines and things up under it, we’ll do it. But there’s a lot of cases where we’ll have to go underground, so it’s a mixture of both, once we do the walkout.”

From the physical walkout, the process moves to a design phase.

“That’s when the network is actually physically designed,” Collins said. “And from the design, that’s when the construction starts. But the first step is the walkout.”

Collins said he could not answer when construction will begin because that depends upon the engineering and the length of the walkout.

“What I’m sharing with the board is the hope that once we get the walkout completed that we can begin construction and hopefully build well ahead of that curve of what the FCC time frame is,” he said.

He mentioned that the VATI grant application is going to be somewhere around $40 million. 

“But Charter’s commitment to that in all three localities is we’re going to contribute to all those passings, which comes to around 6,000 or 7,000 passings, so we’re going to commit $1,500 per passing,” Collins said.

When Covington spoke to the board, she said, “What we are asking, to move forward with this grant, is for Southampton County to allocate $1 million of their American Rescue (Plan) Act funds to this grant application.”

Johnson confirmed there is enough money in the county’s ARPA fund to cover this amount.