Supervisors commit $15 million toward broadband partnership

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted to commit $15 million toward a public-private partnership with electricity providers to provide high-speed internet for residents and businesses.

The vote at the board’s Sept. 8 meeting specified that the money should be used to provide broadband using fiber-optic lines. It was intended to send a clear message to providers, particularly Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, that the supervisors are willing to pay their share to connect the entire county.

“The real solution is fiber to the home, and the co-ops are uniquely situated to provide that,” said Supervisor Duane Adams (Mineral District). “This tells them that if they want to get into the fiber business, we want to be a partner.”

REC leaders said in June they are considering applying for $100 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. If successful, the cooperative would be committed to either provide internet service directly or as a partner with another entity.

The cooperative serves 22 counties, so even if the company decides to enter the internet business, Louisa would not necessarily be first in line to receive service. If the county chips in $15 million, that could help push it to the front of the line.

“This shows the county’s willingness to talk real money,” said Adams. “If this doesn’t get them to the table, they’re not coming.”

It’s also possible Central Virginia Electric Cooperative or even Dominion Energy, the county’s two other electric providers, could make a deal with REC to provide internet service in the latter company’s territory. The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation last winter to make that easier, by eliminating the need to acquire separate easements to locate on a separate company’s poles.

REC sent Louisa County officials a letter in March asking them to say how much money they could commit to help the cooperative provide broadband to its members. Marc Seay, REC information technology manager, estimates it will cost $500 to $600 million to reach that goal. At the time, the supervisors did not respond with a specific dollar amount.  

The supervisors gave Central Virginia Electric Cooperative a $550,000 tax abatement in 2018, after the company announced a $110 million project to extend broadband to all of its members, including 3,500 in western Louisa County. One-third of them have been connected to high-speed internet so far via above-ground fiber lines.

There are 12,790 REC customers in Louisa, while another 4,300 receive their electric power from Dominion Energy. 

Adams told the Louisa County Broadband Authority at its Sept. 2 meeting that the supervisors would manage directly the county’s efforts to provide internet to the community using fiber. He said the board wants the authority to stay in existence to help with applying for grants, conducting research and with education efforts.

The authority is close to completion of the final segment of its wireless tower project, which has enabled an unknown number of citizens to receive broadband. The last tower is about to be built in the Holly Grove area. The supervisors allocated $1 million for the wireless towers, most of which has been spent.

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