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County commits to Firefly Fiber

County commits to Firefly Fiber

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The waiting game is on.

Last week, Madison County Supervisors signed a resolution to officially participate in the Regional Internet Service Expansion (RISE) Project. The project, created by Firefly Fiber Broadband in conjunction with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (RISE) and Dominion Energy, aims to deliver fiber-optic broadband service to more than 35,000 Virginians in the region who lack access to reliable service. Firefly, which is a subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), is working with REC to make the project possible. REC would own the fiber optic system installed on its poles with Firefly providing the actual service. Madison County is one of 12 counties included in the project which spans five planning districts.

Earlier this summer, a survey was conducted to better help define the unserved areas in the 12 counties, all of which strengthens the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant application to obtain funding for the project.

According to CVEC Key Accounts Manager Galen Creekmore, Madison County ranked the highest in the survey for percentage of unknown underserved areas. Preliminary planning for the project has identified 3,204 unserved locations in the county, requiring approximately 395 miles of fiber optic cable to be installed. Also included in those numbers are 1,562 locations in the county that were previously covered via an FCC grant award to CenturyLink and Fiberlight internet providers. By including those areas, the two companies will have to either enter into agreements with the county to build out their systems within three years—half the time required by the federal grant regulations—or give up the areas and funding, allowing them to be taken over by Firefly. A northern portion of the county which Shantel was awarded federal funds for was not included as that company has indicated it plans to develop broadband in the area.

Taking into account the number of underserved locations in the county, which was originally estimated at approximately 2,145 locations including those covered by the two other companies, construction of the project in Madison County is likely to cost $25,675,000. This is at a cost of approximately $800 per passing, about $200 less than the original estimate. Creekmore said the company decreased the amount per passing when the underserved locations increased in order to better meet the county’s available American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Most of the counties in the project plan to use that funding, which was awarded to localities by the federal government as a result of COVID-19, to cover their portion of the construction costs. Madison County is expected to provide funding not to exceed $2,563,200 for the project. Firefly will cover $15,367,300 and if awarded, VATI funding will cover $7,744,500.

The VATI grant is due Sept. 14 and then it’s just a waiting game until awards are announced in December. If funded, construction of the project would begin in late 2022 with completion by the end of 2025.

“This is a big thing for Madison County,” board of supervisors chairman Clay Jackson said.

Supervisor Carty Yowell said at some point, the county will also need to prepare for a presentation from Shantel regarding the area of the county the company received FCC funding for.

Creekmore said taking into account the FCC award, Firefly feels confident the project represents a universal approach and each unserved area will be served.

The supervisors adopted the resolution to participate in the RISE project 5-0.

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