Dinwiddie stands to benefit as co-op gets millions for internet expansion

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 30, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

Prince George Electric eyes expansion into Dinwiddie with broadband services

DINWIDDIE – As Prince George Electric Cooperative continues to find success in the development and implementation of its Ruralband high-speed internet product, the local utility is finding similar success in being able to garner funding for their project as the cooperative has received a multi-million grant to help bring more people online.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced Southside Virginia’s Prince George Electric Cooperative and its subsidiary, PGEC Enterprises, had been among over four dozen entities across the nation selected to receive a portion of $524 million from the federal government to help bring broadband internet to over 200,000 underserved rural homes and businesses in 23 states, with PGEC Enterprises slated to receive over $15.4 million.

The cooperative’s subsidiary was one of two organizations in the Commonwealth to receive federal dollars, with RiverStreet Communications of Virginia also being provided $32 million with the aim of connecting over 13,500 locations to high-speed internet services.

The funding this month is the third such allocation by the federal government over the last several months, as, according to representatives with the FCC, adding the $524 million in disbursements to organizations around America, over $803 million has been allocated to help expand connectivity to over 300,000 homes and businesses in the nation’s rural communities since May of this year.

According to the FCC, the funds provided by the federal agency to the PGEC Enterprises, the provider of their fiber-based Ruralband high-speed internet product, will have to be used to bring 5,287 new locations online and allow those users access to minimum speeds of one gigabit per second for downloads and 500 megabits per second for upload with the specified timeframe provided by the commission.

“Providers must build out to 40 percent of the assigned homes and businesses in the areas won in a state within three years,” officials with the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement following their announcement. “Buildout must increase by 20% in each subsequent year until complete buildout is reached at the end of the sixth year.”

The company confirmed much of the funding will be used to support projects in Sussex and Surry Counties, where PGEC Enterprises has begun to or is in the process of bringing their Ruralband internet product to those communities as Prince George Electric Cooperative’s venture into the internet service business continues to grow, with plans to connect over 1,400 locations in Sussex and over 2,000 sites in neighboring Surry.

Portions of Dinwiddie County have also been identified by PGEC Enterprises as part of their expansion efforts, with the federal funding slated to help connect roughly 660 locations during the course of the project’s timeline. PGEC Enterprises interest into Dinwiddie County comes as the community is in the midst of looking at its broadband future as they are currently working to evaluate proposals from two possible service providers as part of an unrelated joint effort between Dinwiddie and neighboring Amelia County to bring broadband services to their residents and businesses thanks to a $1.7 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

Additionally, just under 800 locations would be brought online in Prince George County thanks to the funding, with the county serving as a funding catalyst for PGEC’s internet service venture in 2017 after the county’s industrial development authority, its board of supervisors and the cooperative made a joint agreement to bring 500 new connections online by the summer of 2021 in exchange for $1 million in local funding. Prince George also served as the host community for the cooperative’s pilot program, which brought several dozen residents online along West Quaker Road in late 2016. 

News of the federal grant funding comes only days after PGEC celebrated their first connection in Sussex County as they continue to expand there following a multi-million dollar state grant to help bring internet service to the county which is largely underserved, that grant also being provided by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. 

Over the course of the project since its expansion from a pilot program in 2017, officials with the cooperative have stated it would take partnerships like those conducted between the cooperative and local governments, along with state and federal government support to make such a large-scale infrastructure project like this a possibility, likening the installation of fiber cables to provide the services to that of rural electrification during the early days of the 20th century.

“Larger, investor-owned electric companies – just like back in the 30s and the 40s with electricity – do not want to invest the kind of time or money to bring this service to rural areas, because the payback isn’t that great,” Prince George Electric Cooperative CEO Casey Logan remarked at their Sussex ribbon cutting this month. “So in the electric cooperative, it fits right into our model. We’re used to the longer payback for our investments and it fits in with our projects. So with counties like Sussex County helping with our upfront construction costs, that makes it more available for our members.”

In past conversations with The Sussex-Surry Dispatch, Renee Chapline, spokesperson for Prince George Electric Cooperative and former director of the region’s leading economic development organization, Virginia’s Gateway Region, talked about how important connecting the rural reaches of the Commonwealth can serve to raise a community’s profile and help bring businesses in, or help currently established ones expand.

“I was economic development helping to create jobs but it is hard to create jobs when you don’t have a minimum qualification of broadband,” she shared. “This is finding a solution and developing a solution for rural Virginia to have many more successes in the future with job creation and education, and all the things we need to make our lives have good quality.”

In the early stages of PGEC’s fiber-to-the-home project, now known as Ruralband, some questioned, after Prince George County provided their initial $1 million investment to bring 500 homes online if the cooperative would stop expanding once they reached that threshold but, throughout the project, thanks to infusions of capital from the local, state, and, now federal level, the cooperative seems to be on course for further expansion beyond the borders of Prince George, which will help the cooperative in terms of maintaining the broadband service and allow for future growth as revenue made from customer subscriptions is reinvested into the project.

“We have to cover the costs, but we don’t have to make a profit,” Chapline explained. “We turn around and reinvest any revenue that we are generating back into the project so that model is working well, which is what the cooperatives do, so I think you will see many cooperatives have success using that model.”

In an update earlier this spring, well before this month’s multi-million dollar allocation from the FCC, Chapline said, when asked about their goals after the 500 homes in Prince George, “We look at ultimately, down the road in four years, it is our hope that our entire service territory will be saturated with Ruralband customers.”

According to the FCC, PGEC and the other successful organizations approved for funding will begin receiving those dollars this month.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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