King George County residents have often described in great detail their desperate need for high-speed internet access.
One of the more memorable comments came in September, when resident Mike Ryan cited numerous problems he’s had trying to get internet and phone service to a home that’s only three years old. Results haven’t matched the costs, which were exorbitant, he said.
“At the rate things are moving, we’ll have a colony on Mars before we have reliable internet service here in the county,” Ryan told the King George Board of Supervisors.
Board members area asking county residents who want fiber-optic broadband to express their interest and take a survey that’s linked to a pilot project. With other localities in the Northern Neck, King George is looking to partner with an internet service provider, All Points Broadband, and an electric cooperative, Dominion Energy Virginia and the Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, to bring fiber broadband to every household that wants it.
King George has agreed to invest $500,000 in the effort, and the businesses are putting up $9 million. The Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, or VATI, will contribute $4 million, according to the agreement.
Dominion plans to use existing right-of-way easements—on power lines used for phone access—to lay 217 miles of what’s known as “middle line” fiber in four Northern Neck counties. Then, All Points would put down the “last-mile” fiber that would reach homes that aren’t in densely populated areas.
The project, one of three pilot programs in the state, has the support of the Virginia General Assembly.
King George residents repeatedly have told supervisors they’ve inquired about tapping into existing broadband, but are so far away from the main line the cost is prohibitive. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cathy Binder is in the same boat. She said last week that it would cost $27,000 for a line down her driveway.
“It’s not just about access, it’s about cost,” she said, adding the supervisors were trying to solve the problem of providing internet to rural residents. “It’s very complicated, you can’t just flip a switch or wave a wand and make it happen.”
Board members are urging King George residents to fill out a survey by All Points to gauge the number of underserved households, said County Administrator Neiman Young. Underserved areas area those without “25/3 service,” the Federal Communications Commission threshold of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.
The survey is available at fiber.allpointsbroadband.com or on the King George home page at kinggeorgecountyva.gov. Residents enter their address and are asked to fill out a questionnaire. All Points Broadband stresses on the form that filling out the survey does not constitute a commitment to sign up or pay anything. “Just show your interest,” it states.
King George is participating in the project with Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland counties. Each locality was supposed to invest $345,000, but King George officials decided to put more “skin in the game,” as Supervisor Annie Cupka described it, and in July, upped its contribution to $500,000.
“We’ll contribute a little more to the pot, but King George is going to be the first to have its fiber network,” Young said at the time.
As part of the plan, All Points Broadband needs to determine the level of customer interest because that will dictate how many users share the upfront costs, according to the company.
Like other rural localities, King George has been trying to solve its internet problems for years, but COVID-19 has brought the issue to the forefront. Resident Kevin Grego, a teacher who moved to the rural Shiloh District in 2016, said his family managed until March “when the pandemic became a worldwide issue, and it really hit home then how hard it is to survive in 2020, in this new age, without wired-in broadband access.”
Grego has to drive to the parking lot of a nearby church and sit in his vehicle to upload lesson plans for the virtual classes he teaches.
More than 500,000 Virginia residents lack easy access to high-speed internet, and extending broadband would support economic development, social equity, public safety, educational opportunities and health care services for people across the state, according to a press release from Dominion.
“With so many Virginians working and learning from home due to COVID-19, access to reliable internet is an absolute necessity,” said Ed Baine, Dominion’s president. “We hope these partnerships are the first of many.”
Dominion has similar pilot programs planned in Surry and Botetourt counties.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425