DUFFIELD — While a recent award of grant funding to extend broadband service to underserved parts of Lee County came as good news to Southwest Virginia, some area officials still see broader problems to expanding what they see as a utility as important as water, sewer and electricity.
Last week’s announcement by Gov. Ralph Northam of a $1.23 million Virginia Telecom-munications Initiative grant to install 73 miles of “last-mile” fiber to connect 679 potential residential and business customers in unserved parts of Lee County marks the second such grant since 2020 to a partnership between the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission and Scott County Telephone Cooperative.
LENOWISCO Executive Director Duane Miller said the VATI grants, a total of more than $2 million since 2020, have been a major stride in improving broadband internet access across the district and Southwest Virginia.
Northam wants to add $50 million to the VATI grant pool in the 2021 state budget bill, and Miller said that does help Southwest Virginia and other rural areas by requiring local government and local service providers to partner in broadband connection projects.
“VATI requires that the grants be spent in unserved areas, and that’s where things get complicated,” Miller said.
Miller said a federal initiative — Connect America — provides grants to service providers to expand connections in unserved areas, but that program often allows providers to move under a longer time frame in areas already in their service territory.
The definition of unserved in Connect America is another issue in how the program helps expand service, Miller said.
Unserved could mean an area where broadband access is at data speeds of less than 25 MB per second, he said.
While the LENOWISCO-Scott County Telephone partnership in the VATI program will help install broadband fiber and service at speeds higher than 25 MB in more remote areas of Lee County, Miller said VATI funds cannot be spent to improve service where Connect America funding has been allocated, regardless of what progress a service provider has made in that area.
“It’s really a matter of sitting down and determining what funding can be used where,” Miller said. “We’re always cooperating with local governments on how to do this Rubik’s Cube of funding.”
First District Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said that VATI is helping make an strong network of broadband fiber lines through the LENOWISCO area more accessible, but the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the area’s school districts has shown the need for service expansion.
“We’ve got the superhighway with fiber running through Lee County, but this year it’s so important with the need for remote learning,” Kilgore said.
He pointed to the limitations of the federal Connect America program in getting private service provider companies to expand last-mile service in their own territories.
“That’s exactly what’s happening,” Kilgore said. “They expand service in one census tract in a territory and leave the rest alone. These companies are not going to bring service into remote areas fast enough, and that’s why it’s so important for the partnership with federal and state programs.”
Kilgore said that Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in Lee County is also partnering with Scott County Telephone to use power poles to hang fiber optic lines to reach unserved and underserved communities.
Miller said the LENOWISCO localities are also working with the district’s planning staff to map out underserved and unserved areas with the goal of service expansion. He said the pandemic’s effect on school systems since the spring of 2020 also showed that the bandwidth of areas thought to have good internet speeds sometimes could not meet the demand of children and work-at-home parents needing high-speed broadband.
Wise County Schools Technology Director Scott Kiser told school board members in January that a survey of student households before the start of the 2020-21 school year indicated that 30% of student households did not have access to a good internet connection.
After the start of the school year, Kiser said that number climbed to 40% after many households found they were running into data limits from their service providers.
He added that the level of service in Starlink-connected households could have taken five to 10 years to achieve by waiting for existing internet service providers to improve their networks.
Miller said that the Wise County school division’s selection as a pilot program for Starlink — with 45 households provided with satellite internet connections by the SpaceX corporation — shows that there are ways to improve connections to areas where broadband is either limited in bandwidth or not part of a service provider’s actual service network.
“Starlink also does not count against using VATI in permitted areas,” Miller said, “and who knows how that technology will develop. If the technology continues to advance, it also helps create a bridge to develop conventional broadband service.”
Kilgore said VATI has been one of the most significant steps in government help with broadband access in almost 17 years, when then-state Sen. William Wampler Jr. advocated for new state laws allowing public utilities like Bristol Virginia Utilities to provide broadband internet.
“It opened up broadband capacity in LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau (Planning District),” Kilgore said. “Otherwise, we’d just be waiting for private companies to expand service when they thought it was profitable. It provided a jump-start that other states copied.”
Kilgore said the idea of treating broadband service like a public utility is discussed more by state legislators.
He pointed to Appalachian Power’s pilot project in Grayson County to provide broadband service as well as Powell Valley Electric’s efforts with Scott County Telephone.
“My question for other providers is, what’s your timeline for doing it?” Kilgore said.