Better access: Supes mull broadband deal

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Albemarle wants to survey what internet service is available in the county before accepting a fiber broadband proposal from Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which wants a $550,000 tax break from the county. Albemarle wants to survey what internet service is available in the county before accepting a fiber broadband proposal from Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which wants a $550,000 tax break from the county.

By Jonathan Haynes

Lack of high-speed internet access has been a big issue for rural areas of Albemarle County in recent years. In January, the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative submitted a proposal to incorporate fiber optic broadband cables along its existing infrastructure in Albemarle, which could benefit about 3,600 county customers. CVEC says it can do the project for $555,000 in county tax incentives, a big drop from its previous request for $2.2 million.

Now Albemarle wants to do an online survey to pin down the number of people without broadband access.

Some county residents, like Phil Fassieux, who lives in the far northwestern part of Albemarle with no broadband or DSL options, are skeptical. “The county has identified this as a need for many years,” he says. “When it comes down to it, they find a reason not to fund the money.”

The cooperative would partner with the Albemarle Broadband Authority, which was established in 2017 to help provide internet service to underserved areas. If the Board of Supervisors approves the partnership with CVEC, the authority would apply for a grant to complete funding for the project from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, a state program conceived to erase the lingering broadband service disparities that remain between rural and urban communities.

Rural communities, which for the most part still rely on DSL, have lagged behind in the shift to broadband because most businesses have deemed installation in those areas cost prohibitive. “We have terrain that makes it very expensive to run fiber optic cables,” says Mike Culp, the county’s IT director and the Albemarle Broadband Authority vice chair. “We’re facing a high cost of building and in low-density communities, there’s less return on investment.”

Fiber optic cable is an ideal medium for broadband since it can transmit data without encountering limiting factors like electromagnetic interference or energy loss, enabling much faster speeds than services that employ copper wiring like DSL and traditional cable.

According to CVEC spokesperson Melissa Gay, the cooperative has run into problems when trying to partner with internet service providers. “We put out a request for pricing and agreed to waive the pole attachment fees if other [internet service providers] would use our poles,” she says. “Not one company could or would come forward because it’s so cost prohibitive. People can’t see a return on investment when there’s four or six people per mile.”

CVEC recently partnered with Appomattox County to offset the costs associated with its $110 million fiber broadband project. The cooperative estimates that its agreement with Appomattox and a nearly $1 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission will trim $10 million off its installation expenses.

Because of its unexpectedly successful rollout, during which it enrolled twice as many eligible members than originally projected and received large grants from the federal government, CVEC has been proposing more modest incentive packages to ease the burden on localities such as Albemarle.

Still, the cooperative is requesting what will be a $550,000 tax break over the next 10 years—about $55,000 a year—from Albemarle County, which has given pause to some board members.

The Board of Supervisors will meet again on October 24 to further discuss the proposal.

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