Editor's Note: The supervisors voted to sign the memorandum of understanding to get the project study under way.
The Greene County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a regional memorandum of understanding at its April 27 meeting that could bring broadband to residents by 2023.
The meeting is after press time, but the memorandum is part of the consent agenda and County Administrator Mark Taylor said last week he’s gotten positive comments from the supervisors.
Phase one of the proposed project will have Dominion Energy, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) and Firefly Fiber Broadband, out of Nelson County, studying the feasibility of providing both the “middle mile” of fiber and the “last mile.” The middle mile is the term used to describe the intermediate connection between miles of large fiber and the last mile connection, which is the term used to describe the fiber from the pole to the homes or businesses.
The first step for participating counties is to agree to the memorandum—which requires they share information with the partners and that they be responsible for the overall coordination of the initiative within their own county. There is no cost to the counties during the first phase.
Firefly, Dominion and REC presented the idea to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) at its March meeting.
“The Firefly folks and the power companies have gotten together about how a business model for what a regional rural broadband initiative might look like and shared that with the TJPDC,” Taylor said. “What they’re saying for the power companies that can’t, for whatever reason, follow the model laid down by the (Central Virginia Electric Cooperative) strategy (is) how about instead they form a partnership whereby the power company does what it can do. In our case, REC is talking about installing fiber to connect to its substations.”
This is also known as that middle mile.
“So, they’re going to create a spine and somebody else needs to throw the fiber up on their poles by agreement or lease and then somebody like Firefly puts the fiber from the poles to the house,” Taylor said.
Phase one will entail looking at whether that’s feasible when considering the distances between homes in rural areas.
REC told the TJPDC in its presentation that it serves 22 counties and there are about 10 accounts per mile. Additionally, approximately 47,000 FCC locations are underserved in REC territory.
“The elegance of the CVEC/Firefly partnership in Nelson is that there are only the two partners,” Taylor said. “With our proposal there are three and people don’t do this as a charity so they are looking to find a way for the partners to be able to profit off it.”
Dominion and REC both said they hope the regional aspect will help the project receive grants from the state and federal funds, including stimulus funds that have yet to be released.
“One of the speculations is the coming round of federal stimulus money might be used for broadband infrastructure—or at least some part,” Taylor said. “We don’t really know that yet.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said in a press release earlier this year that Greene County is expected to receive about $3.8 million in federal stimulus funding, but no guidelines on how that money must be spent have been released yet, Taylor said. He added the school system is also expected to get more than $3 million and could be a partner in this but has not yet heard guidelines for how the money can be spent either.
“Nothing—literally nothing—is known or assumed about this study,” Taylor said. “We don’t really know with any sense or degree what the outcome is going to be, but based on the building blocks involved under Firefly’s business model—and they’re open about this—they can afford to invest somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 per address. That alone is not going to be (enough) to deploy broadband in Greene County because our connection points are too far apart.”
Taylor said that’s where the counties’ funds—whether from grants or taxes—would come in.
“It’s certainly better than no news at all to have some people that are apparently succeeding in broadband actually willing to sign on to make the investment and take up the effort necessary to do a serious study for our little community about what it would really cost to bring us broadband. That in itself is just short of a miracle,” Taylor said.
As of last Friday, the counties of Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumber-land, Fluvanna, Gooch-land, Louisa and Powhatan had signed on and Albemarle County was expected to discuss it on Monday night; after Tuesday, Greene County was expected to have the signature, as well.