IW shares in state broadband funding 

Published 3:45 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Isle of Wight County, Suffolk and Southampton County will receive just over $21.1 million for expansion of fiber broadband internet service to underserved areas.

The funding, announced by Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday, is through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant program and part of a $2 billion grant program that Northam said would bring high-speed internet to 90% of state residents and put Virginia “on track” to being one of the first states to provide universal broadband access.

State Delegate Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, who told community leaders at a breakfast last week that she was confident about the county’s inclusion in the funding, said Tuesday she was “super excited” when the news became official.

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“I was proud to have worked over the past few years on the Broadband Advisory Council and the Appropriations Committee to see this day arrive for our community,” Brewer told The Smithfield Times. “I am excited to see this happen for the families, small businesses and students especially.”

Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said that county supervisors have approved up to $2.7 million in match funds “for the deployment of broadband throughout the county.”

“As we work through the details of the project that number could be adjusted slightly, but this represents a significant commitment from the Board of Supervisors to ensure that our application had the best possible chance for success,” he added.

The grant money for Western Tidewater is part of a joint VATI application by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, Charter Communications and the three localities. Combined with funding from each of the localities and Charter, they’ll have an additional $14.5 to go toward universal broadband access — $6.7 million from the three localities and $7.8 million from Charter.

The regional project, supported by Primis Bank through the Commonwealth Connect Fund, will build fiber broadband to 12,223 locations in Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Southampton. About 11% of the locations are in Isle of Wight, Robertson said.

“There are address points in some of the most rural portions of the county, but there are also unserved address points in both of our towns,” he said.

The VATI grant leverages Charter’s existing service with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund area. The VATI application had asked for nearly $22.8 million.

As part of the deal, the HRPD commission will be the fiscal agent for the project and be a liaison among the localities, Charter and state Department of Housing and Community Development, which handles the VATI program. Charter, meanwhile, is to provide the commission with any required information to manage the grant, including progress reports and monthly invoices, and it will have to provide any required documents for zoning and permit applications to the localities.

Charter will be designing, engineering and building the broadband services as outlined in the VATI application, and will guarantee minimum bandwidth offerings to be no less than what the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband as of the date the project begins. The company will also own everything paid for through the VATI grant.

The service will offer four, symmetrical internet speed tiers — 30/4 Mbps (megabits per second upload/download speeds), 200/10 Mbps, 400/20 Mbps and 1,000/500 Mbps, with no data caps, with monthly service prices of $17.99 (for qualifying homes), $74.99, $94.99 and $134.99, respectively.

The $17.99 monthly rate that is part of Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist program is available to homes in which one or more members are a part of the National School Lunch Program, including through the community eligibility provision, or supplemental security income for those at least 65 years old. Homes in this plan receive a free internet modem, have no data caps and do not need a contract.

The VATI application states it expects about 79% of eligible homes and businesses to pick up broadband service. The number of customers could grow through marketing and outreach efforts.

Charter and each of the localities plan to hold at least three town hall events “within the most impacted communities.”

Neighboring Surry County also has been aggressive in broadband expansion, announcing this summer that every home and business in the county would have access to fiber broadband this fall through a partnership with Dominion Power and others. Fiber-optic cable is considered the “gold standard” of internet connectivity.

Publisher Steve Stewart contributed to this report.