Frustrations rise over lack of broadband progress

Carl Dodson, left, John Wood, and Jeffrey Beekhoo talk to the board of supervisors about efforts to bring broadband to the county.

POWHATAN – Members of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors showed obvious frustration last week during a discussion on the slow road forward to expanding broadband in the county.

During their meeting on Thursday, June 13, the supervisors heard a presentation from county administrator Ted Voorhees and IT director John Wood about the county’s current efforts to help bring broadband to residents.

The news the board heard was that while there are some potential ideas to help the situation, they won’t be immediate and they aren’t widespread solutions. The options included seeking state and federal grants and exploring the possibility of county-financed or organized pilot programs.

Several board members and Voorhees also expressed their disappointment and anger that the county’s partnership with internet provider SCS Broadband, which started in September 2016, has not turned out as they had hoped.

The broadband initiative that saw the company going live on its first and only tower in fall 2017 – at that point several months behind schedule – has yielded almost no results since that time, the board learned. Wood said he didn’t have recent numbers, but the last he heard the provider had only a handful of customers from that site.

The company’s website shows plans for rollout in the county that have not been updated since 2018.

Throughout the discussion, several board members showed obvious annoyance and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress.

David Williams, who represents District 1, changed the tone of the planned presentation when he interrupted Wood’s explanation of the history of the county’s efforts and the different kinds of internet options to cut to the chase about what is happening now.

“We know about the challenges. What we want to know is what is out there we can seize on to make this happen. That is where we are interested. That is what we want to know. It is good to know what the benefits are. We know what the benefits are. They have been staring us in the face for almost four years now,” he said. “My frustration is I want to see something – a path forward.”

Possible paths forward

The biggest hurdle to widespread broadband access in rural counties like Powhatan is money, Voorhees said. Larger internet providers such as Verizon and Comcast are unwilling to spend the money on the infrastructure that would be needed to expand their coverage areas because there aren’t enough customers to guarantee a return on their investment.

When the county put out a request for proposals several years ago, SCS Broadband was the only internet service provider to respond, he pointed out, again expressing disappointment with the company’s failure to follow through on its promises.

The board had said in the past that it did not want to invest taxpayer money into the broadband problem. But several years later and no further along on the issue of broadband, Voorhees asked the board to consider one possible initiative that might involve county dollars, or at least a loan of them.

The idea he presented was a neighborhood project that involves identifying viable home clusters and an interested internet service provider. The county would meet with the people in those areas and help them find solutions to fund putting in the infrastructure necessary for the provider to come in.

Some of the funding strategies included seeking federal or state grants, having the project funded by an HOA, or setting up a program through the Economic Development Authority, Voorhees said. This would involve giving the EDA administration of a certain amount of county funds that could be loaned to a community to pay to put in the infrastructure and setting up an agreement where the homeowners would pay the county back over several years.

Voorhees had proposed the Walnut Creek Area for a potential pilot with about 100 homes. The county had planned to hold a community meeting later in the month to receive feedback from residents but also wanted to gauge the board’s interest in the project.

“If the board is not willing to spend any money through some sort of loan or grant – put some sort of capital on the table – then we don’t need to have those kinds of meetings and we are still stuck other than grants,” Voorhees said.

Williams raised concerns about the board not being better informed about the pilot program before county staff starts holding meetings that was echoed by others. The board discussed it at length, often repeating points they had already made, and ultimately decided they wanted to see a more definitive plan for the project before staff started holding community meetings.

Another option Voorhees discussed was meeting with Southside Electric Cooperative about the possibility of reconsidering their position on helping bring broadband to more of the county. The electric cooperative previously spoke to the board on June 11, 2018, saying it wasn’t financially feasible since it serves 18 counties to help all of them and it didn’t want to cherry pick projects among them.

Voorhees pointed to new opportunities such as funding for gigabit broadband in the Connect America Fund II auction, which other electric cooperatives in the state have applied for and won and said he plans to meet with the co-op and see if it will reconsider.

Grants

The board also heard about grants the county will pursue. On May 31, staff submitted an application for a USDA ReConnect Grant, a program designed to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. Winners of the grant likely will be announced in the fall.

The grant would involve entering into a public-private partnership with an internet service provider with plans to build a fiber to wireless network in an unserved area, Wood said. The county proposed to build a network that would provide broadband to 1,154 homes in a specific portion of the western end of the county in which 100 percent of the households have no access to broadband.

It would involve laying fiber that starts in the Village area but runs west on Old Buckingham Road and west on Anderson Highway to Trenholm Road, then north along Trenholm. The fiber would also branch off of Trenholm for short distances along both Duke Road and Cartersville Road.

The total cost of the project would be $7,053,356 and include building a tower that is already planned to serve the county’s public safety radio system. The grant would provide $5,290,017 from the federal government, but the USDA requires a 25 percent match, or $1,763,339.

In the right partnership, the county may be able to request that the internet service provider pay that as a sign of its commitment to the area, said Jeffrey Beekhoo, president of Virginia Beach consulting firm Broadband Telecom Services, who spoke at the meeting. Beekhoo also spoke about a regional effort to improve broadband coverage.

If the county is not chosen for a USDA grant this year, it can always apply again next year, Beekhoo added.

Voorhees pointed out that Powhatan is one of only 78 applicants nationwide vying for a portion of the $200 million available through this round of USDA ReConnect grants.

He said the county also plans to apply for a grant through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), which is designed to subsidize construction costs and provide last-mile services to unserved areas of the state. The grant application deadline is Sept. 3.

The board did not take any votes at this meeting. The only action that came out of this discussion was direction to staff to cancel a possible community meeting in the Walnut Creek area until the supervisors are better informed about the neighborhood pilot program.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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