By Aila Boyd
Gov. Ralph Northam visited Botetourt County last Tuesday to commend the county’s efforts to bring broadband coverage to underserved and unserved areas throughout the county.
Northam spoke at a ceremony that was held at the Greenfield Education and Training Center in Daleville. He described Botetourt County as being “God’s country.”
“As you can probably tell from listening to me, I’m from rural Virginia,” Northam said, specifically the Eastern Shore. “We need to do all that we can to lift up rural Virginians.” He suggested that one of the best ways to lift up rural Virginians is by granting them broadband access.
He noted in his speech that he requested over $50 million for use over the next five years for broadband expansion funding from the General Assembly this year. “In Richmond, you don’t always get what you ask for,” he said. The General Assembly ultimately allocated $19 million, a significant increase from the $4 million that was devoted to broadband the year before.
“When we talk about broadband and those that still don’t have broadband, that’s still about 600,000 Virginia residents. That’s way too many that don’t have access,” Northam said. “This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s something that everyone agrees we need to move forward on. We won’t rest until everyone in Virginia has access to broadband.”
Northam announced in April that the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative (CBEC) and the county had received a 2019 Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant from Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development for nearly $760,000. The grant is to be used to build fiber-to-the-home for 621 homes and 52 businesses.
Shawn Hildebrand, the chief executive officer for CBEC, said the cooperative he heads was founded 83 years ago with the goal of providing electricity to rural portions of Craig and Botetourt Counties. “These areas had low population densities then and were hard to serve then. They have low population densities today and are still hard to serve,” he said. “However, it was our mission then and it is our mission today that these same rural areas will have the services that others have.”
He explained that providing highspeed internet to its customers poses many of the same challenges to the cooperative that it faced when it first set out to provide electricity 83 years ago.
“Just because you want to live in a rural area should not mean that you should have inferior service or no service at all,” Hildebrand insisted.
He ended his remarks by noting that he feels citizens who will live in the county 83 years from now will be as thankful for the efforts that are currently being made towards broadband expansion as citizens are today for the headway that was made towards expanding electricity to rural parts of the county 83 years ago.
During last month’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the county administrator was authorized to enter into an interim agreement with Lumos Networks for the development of a detailed design and deployment plan for a fiber-to-the-home solution for unserved areas west and south of Buchanan, targeting 645 locations.
“This is a team effort. When things like this happen, moving forward with broadband, it takes us all working together,” Northam said.
He explained that he frequently receives questions about his administration’s top priorities. He noted that his priorities include: the economy, education, and healthcare. “All three of those priorities depend on internet,” he said.
He described the current state of Virginia’s economy as “doing well,” stressing that it’s because of the efforts of all Virginians. He went on to note that his administration has brought $18 billion in capital investment and close to 50,000 new jobs into Virginia. “Virginia is doing very well economically,” he said.
He went on to say that by expanding broadband coverage, the economy will continue to grow. “There is no way that in 2019 a business can thrive without having access to broadband,” Northam said.
“I have said from the start of my time as governor of Virginia that no matter who you are, no matter where you are in Virginia, that I want you to have a job that you can support yourself and your family,” he said.
In terms of education, Northam said that he feels confident that every citizen wants to ensure that Virginia’s children have access to a “world-class education.”
“Expanding broadband is very important for education,” he said.
He noted that students regularly face the challenge of starting an assignment online at school, but then aren’t able to complete it once they go home because they don’t have internet access. When describing students’ lack of internet access, he said that it puts them at a “tremendous disadvantage.”
“If we want everyone in Virginia to have access to healthcare, the way that we can do that in rural Virginia is through telemedicine,” Northam said.
He noted that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to telemedicine, but that Virginians who don’t have internet access will not be able to access healthcare remotely.
Del. Terry Austin, who represents the 19th House District, was on hand for the ceremony. During his remarks, Northam described Austin as being his “friend,” noting that they are both from and have an appreciation for rural Virginia.
“He’s there for the right reason and that’s to do good for his constituents and the Commonwealth,” he said of Austin’s service in the House of Delegates.
Vice Chairman of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors Dr. Mac Scothorn, who also chairs the Botetourt County Broadband Commission, walked those in attendance through the county’s past and current efforts to expand broadband access throughout the county.
“Today we are standing here to celebrate how far we have come, but I’d also like to note that we’re not done yet,” Scothorn said.
In December 2017, a survey was conducted so that the county could better understand the broadband needs of county residents and businesses.
“That survey revealed some challenges, but it also helped us uncover some excited opportunities,” Scothorn said. “We took the energy of the citizens and formed the Broadband Commission.”
In September of 2018, the county hosted a broadband summit to help find ways to bring fiber-to-the-home throughout all of Botetourt County.
Later, Sandie Terry, the president of Rural Broadband Consulting, was hired to serve as a consultant to help guide the county’s broadband efforts.
“That was a gamechanger,” Scothorn said of the hiring of Terry. “She helped us speak the language of the providers and taught us all the things we didn’t know about the world of broadband.”
Terry debuted a comprehensive study that assessed the county’s broadband needs and created a six-phase expansion plan in late January of this year.
“We would not be here today if it was not for her,” Scothorn said of Terry.
The Botetourt County Broadband Commission is comprised of Scothorn, Walter Grigg, vice chairman, Michelle Crook, Brandon Evans, and Darrell Hix.
Scothorn said, “Since day one, it has been my mission to get broadband expanded in Botetourt County.”
Chairman of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors Billy Martin served as the master of ceremonies for the governor’s visit.
Before the ceremony, the Botetourt County Economic Development Authority voted to approve a management agreement with the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which will allow the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority to manage a data center at the Greenfield Education and Training Center. The Greenfield Education and Training Center is owned by the Botetourt County Economic Development Authority.
“Having a local open access data center improves our economy,” Scothorn said. “By partnering with the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, we are now excited to be able to invite private sector telecommunications companies to locate, collaborate, and innovate locally here in Botetourt County.”
He added that the center will allow the county to be a good neighbor to other local municipalities.
He described the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority as having “world-class technical knowledge.”
Ken McFadyen, the director of economic development for Botetourt County, said that the county estimates that the center will be able to hold 20 racks. He noted that the reason why the county turned to the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority is because his department doesn’t have the expertise to operate a data center.
As part of the agreement, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority will market and manage the center.
“This will attract more internet providers to the community that will then further diversify our broadband offerings and allow us to leverage an asset that we have here in the building that is in demand,” McFadyen said.
The lease agreement between the two entities notes that they both “have a mutual goal of providing enhanced data storage solutions for Botetourt County and the region and wish to attract providers to a collocation facility in Botetourt for the benefit of local, regional, national, and international businesses.”
The lease will last for 25 years. Currently, the storage center includes a generator, cooling units, a battery back-up system, and a raised floor for temperature control.