County has all hands on deck for broadband internet expansion

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Nov. 11, 2017 | 7:11 p.m. 

DINWIDDIE – As demand for reliable high-speed internet access grows from both consumers and business entities alike, Dinwiddie leaders are listening and actively pursuing efforts to bring as many people online in the county as possible as soon as possible.

According to data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, just about half of Dinwiddie residents have access to high-speed internet, meaning the other half either have no internet access or can only access speeds below 25mbps.

That data is very familiar to Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill and his staff as they work on ways to close the internet gap and bring service to residents and businesses and, in an interview, he broke down what service distribution looks like in Dinwiddie County.

“When you’re looking at this ‘digital divide,’ you see people in the northeastern portion of the county that is close to Petersburg who have access to the internet because of the infrastructure there and in place, allowing Verizon and Comcast to come in,” he said. “Depending on where you live elsewhere in the county, like densely forested areas, you could be getting very little speed and have limited access to cell service. 

Understanding that service delivery will likely be done through a wireless method, Massengill explained that a company was brought in to do a complete analysis of the county’s “vertical assets,” looking at what towers are in Dinwiddie, who owns them, their condition and other factors that will play a key role in bringing service to the county.

“At the end of that, we discovered that we have about 38 vertical assets in place that were considered ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ and have space for broadband equipment,” Massengill said. “The good thing is that a lot of the needed infrastructure exists so now we just have to determine how do we get on those towers.” 

Some of those answers may come through the implementation plan developed by SCS Broadband, which provided county leaders with vital information, including which towers are pivotal to be able to bring large parts of the county online.

As they worked through that implementation plan, Massengill said conversations with other localities drew them to Amelia County, where they are in a similar position, in terms of service access and planning, to Dinwiddie, with both sides opting to partner up in order to try and get a multi-million dollar grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, known as “The Tobacco Commission” for short. 

The grant seeks to address last-mile broadband connections, which are commonly referred to as the hardest of the connections to make in the rural broadband field, from the fiber or wireless connection point to the end user, residents, and businesses. 

According to The Tobacco Commission, they are “setting aside $10 million from the Research & Development Committee budget to assist in the construction of these ‘last mile’ connections.” Those localities applying for grant funding from the pool of $10 million must be expanding service into unserved areas of the commission’s footprint at “speeds of at least 10Mbps, “with preference given to localities applying in conjunction with private-sector partners.”

“The community would have to partner with an internet service provider and that ISP would have to look at the community and make a three-to-five year plan to get broadband to the community, that last-mile connection,” Massengill explained. 

As part of the grant, which applications have to be completed for by mid-November, only days away, Massengill said the county’s partnership with Amelia hopefully will help Dinwiddie and Amelia’s project stand out so it can receive that funding.

“The Virginia Public Procurement Act seeks competition,” he said. “We partnered with Amelia and their county administrator and asked how we can cast more of a net to get more of the Commonwealth lit. Greater value is going to be put on communities who have creatively partnered with each other and, if you’re partnering with another locality, you’re casting a large net.”

Massengill added, “The way we have done this through the public procurement process helps bring the price down. Here, the issue isn’t technological because we know it works, but who pays for it. The thought is if we use The Tobacco Commission funding and perhaps some private and local investments, this will help get this done.”

Between now and November 15, Massengill and his staff will be reviewing bids from interested parties before scheduling meetings with those applicants and thoroughly evaluating each of their proposals and the companies themselves, which will be a key part of the county’s grant application due on the 15th. 

Massengill continued to reiterate points made during a July 2017 report from Dinwiddie Director of Information Technology Norman Cohen where he explained the county’s internet aspirations will be a “hybrid solution” where multiple companies are offering services across the county.

“There are more conversations being held about broadband more than ever before,” Massengill said.

“When you look at [Prince George Electric Cooperative],” he said referring to their fiber internet-to-the-home efforts in Prince George County, which features a three-party deal between PGEC, the county, and their industrial development board providing $1 million in funding to bring 500 homes online in four years, “that is the equivalent of $2,000 per home. While one size may not fit all, it is possible that PGEC’s project could help in Carson, or we could see Comcast expand, or even the project we’re working on may the answer.”

In late October, Prince George Electric Cooperative CEO Mike Malandro said it is possible that their fiber-to-the-home venture in Prince George, and soon Sussex could expand to neighboring communities, including Dinwiddie, depending on the growth of their ongoing projects.

“Dinwiddie and Amelia could be a case study on how other communities going about this,” Massengill remarked, noting that few communities have gone from the concept stage to bringing their locality online and the lack of a proverbial road map to guide localities through this project. “Our goal is to get everyone lit up. There could be circumstances that could create challenges, but we want to get as many people and districts up as possible and this has to be done with a business-minded approach.” 

According to Massengill, funds for the grant both Dinwiddie and Amelia are jointly applying for will be dispersed in January.  

In a statement from the commission regarding the grant, while The Tobacco Commission has set aside $10 million, “it will only fund projects that meet all of the requirements laid out in the program guidelines and are approved by the Commission,” adding, “This may result in a total expenditure of less than $10 million if appropriate projects are not identified to utilize the entire sum.”

Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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