Several northern Botetourt County communities could have high-speed Internet by the end of 2021 if the General Assembly approves a pilot program aimed at connecting rural areas to the wider world via broadband access.
Botetourt is one of three areas in Virginia to participate in the Rural Broadband Pilot program, a partnership between Dominion Energy Virginia and Internet service providers. The first round of projects proposed includes nearly 300 miles of middle mile fiber costing $29 million to construct.
Officials with Dominion Energy Virginia and BARC Connects estimate over 30 miles of fiber-optic cable will be built in Botetourt County costing $3 to $3.5 million. The General Assembly created the pilot program to serve unserved rural areas, but requires approval from the State Corporation Commission (SCC).
If greenlit by the SCC, the unincorporated communities of Alpine, Arcadia, Dillon, Greyledge, Harvey and Munford could join other Botetourt County communities with broadband access, said Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative, parent company of BARC Connects, adding last week that it’s too early to determine the number of households eligible for broadband connection. A firm number will be available in a few months, he said. According to the 2019 Census there’s less than 2,500 people living in the six communities.
Botetourt County was chosen for the program because BARC Connects was awarded federal funding to serve an unserved portion of Botetourt County, and it met the pilot program criteria enacted by the General Assembly.
Construction responsibilities are divided between the two companies, with Dominion building the middle mile and BARC Connects completing the last mile connections.
Ed Diggs, Dominion Energy project manager, said the “backbone” of the project is Dominion’s responsibility. He estimates the project start date is sometime in the first quarter of 2021 with middle mile fiber being laid and completed by August 2021. Middle mile is an industry term describing the network infrastructure that connects local, or last mile, networks to other network service providers, major telecommunications carriers, and the greater Internet. It does not typically connect the majority of end-users, according to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.
The second and final phase, known as the last mile, is slated for completion by the end of 2021 making broadband accessible in northern Botetourt County, said Keyser.
An estimated 500,000 Virginians live without easy access to high-speed Internet. A recent State Council for Higher Education in Virginia study found approximately one in five rural students lack broadband at home, compared to less than 10 percent of school-age Virginians living in urban areas.
If approved, the pilot projects will help provide reliable Internet for students learning virtually due to COVID-19, as well as enable access to telemedicine and other healthcare services, Dominion officials said in a press release.
“With so many Virginians working and learning from home due to COVID-19, access to reliable Internet is an absolute necessity,” Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia, said in the release. “We hope these partnerships are the first of many, and we’re optimistic about how much these efforts could help communities here in our home state.”
In addition to Botetourt, Northern Neck and Surry counties will participate in the pilot program. Surry County has a population of about 7,000 and is slated to receive 43 miles of middle mile fiber. Approximately 217 miles of middle mile fiber is proposed for Northern Neck County.
The three proposed pilot projects are the first Dominion Energy Virginia has brought forward under the Grid Transformation & Security Act of 2018 and legislation spearheaded by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol in 2019. The projects also align with Governor Northam’s $85 million proposal to expand access to broadband for unserved communities.
This is the second announcement about increased broadband access in the county in recent weeks. During the Sept. 22 Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Mac Scothorn announced the county was spending about half of its $6 million Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, CARES, towards new broadband projects. Cody Sexton, assistant to the county administrator, said most of the fiber-to-the-home will be available in the western part of the county, mostly in the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative service area.