A race to rural broadband

Published 4:51 pm Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Surry is on track to become one of the first counties in Virginia to have achieved universal broadband access.

Anyone in the county who wants access to high-speed internet should be able to get a fiber optic connection to his or her home by the end of October, Casey Logan, president and chief executive officer of Prince George Electric Cooperative, told Surry’s Board of Supervisors Aug. 5.

“We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Logan quipped.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Fiber connections transmit data by sending pulses of light through a cable.

According to Logan, the co-op’s Ruralband subsidiary, in partnership with Dominion Energy, has to date extended fiber optic infrastructure to roughly 66% of the county’s population.

As the “middle mile” provider, Dominion has been updating its energy grid in the county and allowing Ruralband to lease the new infrastructure and use it to provide fiber-to-the-home connections to Surry businesses and residents.

Fiber-to-the-home, Logan explained, is essentially the gold standard technology for high-speed internet access.

“I think there’s a race going on right now,” Logan said.

There’s a telephone cooperative pursuing a similar initiative in Bath County on Virginia’s western border, he said.

“I can’t say who’s going to get there first,” Logan said. “But Surry County’s definitely going to be one of the first in the state of Virginia if not, you know, in all of the United States especially to the fiber-to-the-home technology, to have this available to the residences. So thank you all again for the opportunity, for the partnership.”

Over 700 of the roughly 2,400 households that now have access to broadband in Surry County have opted to take advantage of the service and request a fiber-to-the-home connection. Another 136 connections are pending. Generally, it takes about four weeks from the date a fiber-to-the-home request is made to the date that house is added to the network, Logan said.

The numbers equate to a roughly 36% “take rate,” Logan said. That’s roughly double the number of broadband customers Ruralband was serving at the end of 2020, he said.

By the end of August, “We’re going to light up our Bacon’s Castle area,” Logan said. The town of Claremont and its surrounding areas can expect to gain access to the network by September or October.

Dominion is on track to finish its splicing in the area of Surry leading up to the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, Logan added, meaning that area too can expect to gain access to broadband by the end of the month.

“We’ll be able to light that fiber up and start connecting homes up there … we’re working through it in a staged approach that we’ve had planned out from day one, and the pieces are coming together,” Logan said.

Ruralband’s plans for Surry were already well under way when Gov. Ralph Northam, last month, announced Virginia would invest roughly $700 million in funds it received through the federal American Rescue Plan to provide universal access to broadband statewide by 2024.

The co-op had partnered with Surry County in 2019 to secure a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant in the amount of $4.45 million. In September 2020, when the majority of Hampton Roads school divisions were still offering online-only instruction in light of the pandemic, a report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found one in five Virginia K-12 and college students lacked high-speed internet or a computer in the home.

The Surry broadband project represents a $5.5 million investment for Ruralband, not including the infrastructure investments by Prince George Electric Cooperative or Dominion, Logan said. Any cost related to the fiber-to-the-home service not covered by the grant is absorbed by Ruralband, he added.

There are no connection fees so long as residents sign up as soon as Ruralband opens a new fiber zone, Logan said. Ruralband’s residential rates, according to its website, range from $49 per year for a 25 megabyte-per-second connection to $99 per year for a 1 gigabyte-per-second connection.

“All of our rates are year over year, no escalations after the first year,” Logan said.