More than 80 years ago, 90 percent of farms in America lacked electricity. Geography, topography and costs were prohibitive. But 15 years after the Rural Electrification Act, more than 80 percent of those farms had “current.” 

Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s initiative, we can fast-forward to 2019. Except now the deficiency is high-speed internet.

Fortunately for Orange County businesses and homes, a statewide program—similar to the 1936 act—exists to help deliver critical modern-day infrastructure in hard-to-reach places.

The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) extends broadband service to currently unserved areas. This year, the Department of Housing and Community Development will award the $19 million appropriation to eligible applicants, subsidizing construction costs and providing last-mile services to these unserved areas of the state.

Orange County Broadband Program Manager Lewis Foster feels Orange County has a good shot at that pool of money.

Last week, the county’s broadband authority announced its application for two VATI grants it hopes will deliver high-speed internet to those in the rural western and eastern portions of the county who have the greatest connectivity challenges.

And, the county has partnered with Culpeper and Madison counties for a third VATI grant to deliver what’s called the “middle mile,” linking Orange County’s recent high-speed fiber project connecting Orange County Schools with a major network access point in Culpeper, leading to a major fiber line in Ashburn—“the backbone of the internet,” according to Foster.

The proposed project known as “Delivery of Technology-Culpeper, Orange and Madison (DOT COM),” will allow Culpeper, Madison and Orange counties to install an 18-mile fiber line along Route 15 that would serve, among others, the Carver Center, Dogwood Village, the Inn at Willow Grove, the Hartland Institute, agricultural operations and, eventually, homes along the route.

The counties are partnering with Virginia Broadband LLC, on the $1.3 million project. The proposed middle mile route would begin at Orange Elementary School and end at Virginia Broadband’s location in Culpeper.

If approved, the state grant would cover 80 percent of the project cost, with Orange County chipping in $156,937 toward the local match.

“If we can get up there and have access, then we can put equipment in place to have internet access on a wholesale level and leverage providers for service to Orange County,” Foster explained. “It’s a pathway.”

Essentially, if approved, the grant would subsidize the line, offering an entry point for smaller internet service providers by reducing overhead costs and creating a better business risk, while ultimately offering service choices for citizens.

But, Foster notes, the county’s eggs aren’t all in that one basket. There are fiber connection points on Route 3 and Route 33 the broadband authority could pursue if the Route 15 grant doesn’t come through.

Meanwhile, working off the results of the recent countywide broadband survey, Foster is applying for two other VATI grants to provide broadband service to unserved areas in far eastern and western reaches of Orange County.

A $2.6 million proposed project could connect more than 900 homes in the Mine Run, Gold Dale and Burr Hill areas, as well as Flat Run and the Germanna area.

In this application, the county is partnering with Hosted Backbone LLC, which would commit $100,000 toward the match, leaving the county a balance of $421,785. VATI would provide the 80% balance. The project would include engineering, permits, construction, inspection, node cabinets, power and electronics.

At the other end of the county, the county is seeking a grant proposal for the Scuffletown, Ridge Road and Barboursville areas west of Route 20 that could serve nearly 600 homes. Service would be provided by Madison Gigabit Internet Inc., which would contribute $75,000 toward the nearly $1.9 million project. The county share would be $298,972.

These are two of what Foster anticipates will be 11 or 12 designated service areas throughout the county. They, and others, have been determined by what Foster calls “chasing dots,” referring to recent broadband survey results.

According to county geographic information systems analyst Jim Whipp, nearly 600 people have responded to the survey, with 560 being measurable responses. More than 52 percent of participants reported either no service or less than 10 mbps service. Slightly more than 12% reported they had greater than 25 mbps and were satisfied with their service—and most of those came from District 5.

The most respondents (180) live in District 1 and the second-most (147) are in District 2. They also topped the list of those least satisfied with available service. District 4 (which includes a large section of the county’s rural eastern end) had 108 respondents and District 3 (including the Town of Orange) had 70 responses. The fewest respondents (51) live in District 5.

Whipp said the data collected yielded few surprises, and it was apparent that most survey participants indicated they have slow internet or no access at all.

“The most glaring areas are in Barboursville and the Mine Run/District Four areas,” he said, leading Foster to target those two regions with his first two grant applications.

Foster said the grants anticipate a “50% ‘take rate,’” meaning they anticipate half of the households in each region will subscribe to a plan if it is available. As part of his application, Foster must include a proposed rate tier from the partner provider illustrating the affordability of the prospective service.

“No one is serving these areas today because of the cost,” he said. “By the county (and VATI) investing in the infrastructure, we’re taking the prohibitive cost out of the equation so they can’t say it’s not a good investment.”

Some service areas—around the Town of Orange and within Lake of the Woods—would not qualify for the grants, Foster noted, because sufficient access exists. They also offer economies of scale that make them better risks for larger service providers.

Foster said cost estimates of each of the two county projects were based on delivering that “last mile” ‘access an average of 250 feet from a main road fiber backbone.

Grant applications are due Sept. 3 with decisions announced by December. Contracts would be awarded in early 2020 with a 12-month completion date. If the county receives either grant, it could start connecting some customers by the spring, Foster said. “We don’t want to wait until we get it all done to get people connected.

“This isn’t a problem that occurred overnight. It’s been a slow process that’s taken some time, but the areas that we can get connected we want to achieve some impact quickly,” he added.

The public is invited to submit written or oral comments and/or grievances on the proposed 2020 VATI Grant Application by Aug. 30 to the Orange County Broadband Authority. Email Foster at lfoster@orangecountyva.gov or submit written comments to: Orange County Broadband Authority, P.O. Box 111, Orange, VA 22960. Comments also will be received by telephone at 661-5332.

Public comments on the DOT COM application can be submitted in person or by mail to Laura Loveday at 803 South Main Street, Culpeper, VA 22701 or by phone at (540) 727-3410 ext. 5 or by email at lloveday@culpepercounty.gov. All comments will be considered and submitted with the application.

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