Thirteen Central Virginia counties could see nearly all of their residents receive access to fiber-optic broadband service over the next few years.
Nine counties have signed a memorandum of understanding that could lead to a partnership to bring high-speed internet to residents who don’t have access, and four additional counties have projects in the works.
The MOU is between Firefly Fiber Broadband, which is a subsidiary of the Nelson County-based Central Virginia Electric Cooperative; Dominion Energy Virginia; the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative; and the participating localities. It kicks off the possibility of bringing fiber broadband to unserved areas of Albemarle, Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa and Powhatan counties.
“This partnership marks a major step forward in ensuring that the communities we serve have access to quality, high-speed internet that is critical to allowing homes, businesses and educational institutions to function in today’s digital world,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia, in a news release. “We are excited to work with Firefly Fiber Broadband, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and each participating county to help support the expansion of this critical service.
CVEC President and CEO Gary Wood said in an interview that they will work to serve everyone who meets the state definition of underserved, which is having a download speed under 25 megabits per second and an upload speed under three megabits per second.
This summer, Firefly will work with localities to identify the unserved areas and come back with final proposals in late August and early September.
“We’ll go back to them and say, here’s what it takes from local funds, here’s what we think we’ll get from state funds and here’s what we’re putting into it in order to make this a reality, that we’ll build every unserved area over the next three years,” Wood said.
Once counties sign on and commit to local funding, Firefly plans to submit an application to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative with a regional plan for broadband service. Dominion will have to take its proposal to the State Corporation Commission for regulatory approvals.
“We’re working really hard to make sure we have a really good grant application that gets funded, then we’ll get this built over the next three years,” Wood said.
The partnerships with Dominion and Rappahannock are formal, but Wood said they also have “a gentleman’s agreement” with American Electric Power/Appalachian Power that AEP will work to facilitate the project on its lines, as much as possible.
Wood said Firefly is also working with Madison, Culpeper and Amherst counties on similar projects, but they came up later or were a slightly different fit because they had neither Rappahannock nor Dominion territory. Firefly also has already committed to providing universal service in Nelson County, he said.
The biggest risk is not receiving the VATI funding, Wood said, but Firefly is working hard to manage the risks.
“The counties have some access through the American Rescue Plan funds for their portions this year,” he said. “That’s helpful and helpful to the counties because it’s difficult for rural counties to find additional funds, but the ARP funds give them a pool of money and a pool that has specific permissions to be spent on broadband expansion.”
American Rescue Plan money also will be part of what is discussed during a General Assembly special session next month, with broadband being one of the priorities.
“We know the VATI program has $50 million in funds and we anticipate there being another significant allocation of funds at the state level,” Wood said. “That will be important because our project will request possibly more than $50 million in VATI funds — we’re looking at a project that would total more than $200 million in construction costs.”
He said Firefly is working with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the VATI program, on how to be successful with this application.
“What I would anticipate is more likely to happen if they don’t fund it is that they may not fully fund it, but they would fund the first half or third, and we would start work with the anticipation of going back for additional requests,” Wood said. “Our hope is we’ll ask for all of it and it’ll be funded at one time and cover the work for the next three years.”
CVEC is a little more than half way to completing a buildout of fiber from all of its substations to provide access to its customers. Wood said this project is scheduled to be completed in July 2022.
“This fits pretty well, this project for Firefly, in that the majority of the construction will take place after the CVCE construction is complete,” he said. “We’ll start some construction before that and in parallel, but the biggest piece of it comes as we finish up CVEC. So we intend to use the same design firms and the same construction contractors to move on into these other areas.”
Wood said Firefly has set up a web page at fireflyva.com/rise for people to put in their address and do a speed test if they do have slow service.
“We’re not using the information for marketing — we just need to know where the unserved areas are,” he said. “It’s really important if you’re in any of those counties, no matter what your electric provider is, no matter if you have an internet service already but it doesn’t meet those requirements, we need folks to log on and let us know so that we make sure we include them.”