Mike Sheridan’s family have been members of Lyles Baptist Church in Fluvanna County for decades.
They decided to wire the church for electricity in 1939; now they want internet so sermons and services can be livestreamed. After years of waiting, the church, along with hundreds of rural homes, businesses and buildings in Central Virginia counties, will soon receive fiber internet access thanks to a combination of local, state and federal grants.
“We’ve gotten started [on broadband], but there are a lot of parts in this county that desperately need broadband,” said Sheridan, the chair of Fluvanna County’s Board of Supervisors. “With this, these students will be able to come home, do the work and take care of getting that education so that hopefully one day they can take care of me.”
Sheridan and other local and state officials gathered underneath a pavilion at the church on Thursday to celebrate the grants and coming investment.
Gov. Ralph Northam has made rural broadband access one of his priorities. Across the state, an estimated 10% of homes don’t have access to internet, but $4.9 million in grants from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, originally announced in March, will extend service to areas in the state not yet served by any broadband provider.
“If you’re going to have a business come to you in Virginia, invest in rural Virginia and if you’re going to help a business grow, there is no way that you’re going to do it without access to the internet,” Northam said at the event. “Businesses are not going to come to parts of this country where they don’t have access, in 2019, to broadband. It’s just that simple.”
Internet is also crucial for schools, officials noted, as well as for rural health initiatives such as telehealth, where patients can call or message with a physician to manage chronic health conditions.
Sheridan noted that his son attended Piedmont Virginia Community College in Albemarle County and was unable to do homework at their house.
“It’s not uncommon to drive by our library in the evenings and see families and kids sitting in the parking lot using the free Wi-Fi that we have there; there are just a lot of counties in the area that are underserved,” said Eric Dahl, the county administrator.
The Albemarle Broadband Authority and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative received $301,748 in VATI funding for projects in Albemarle County; the Fluvanna County Central Virginia Electric Cooperative received $641,967 for its broadband expansion project; and Louisa County SCS Broadband received $233,905 for the AcelaNet LLC/SCS VATI project.
CVEC will use some of the money to work on its Columbia substation, which will add access for 450 homes in Fluvanna and Cumberland counties, according to the cooperative, and eventually provide access to Goochland County.
“This is not just a grant for this area,” said Gary Wood, the president and CEO of CVEC, gesturing at the woods surrounding the pavilion, “but also for others in other areas.”
Over the next four years, according to the cooperative, CVEC will invest $110 million to build fiber lines along its current electric lines, allowing Firefly Fiber to reach all of its 37,000 members.
Northam also visited the Charlottesville headquarters of Virginia’s Department of Forestry on Thursday. The facility has installed 120 kW solar panels on its roof, part of a project to help state government buildings offset their energy costs.